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Golden Age Author Ngaio Marsh

In today’s episode, Brook and Sarah discuss Ngaio Marsh, one of four Golden Age Queens of Crime, playwright, and artist.


Laura Lippman Tess Monaghan series (1997-2015)
Force of Nature (2018) Jane Harper
A Man Lay Dead (1934) Ngaio Marsh
Ngaio Marsh: Her Life in Crime (2008) Joanne Drayton
“The Secret Life of Ngaio Marsh” (April 3, 2019) Shedunnit Podcast
“Ngaio Marsh Goes Home” (November 17, 2021) Shedunnit Podcast
Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) Agatha Christie
Money in the Morgue (2018) Ngaio Marsh and Stella Duffy
The Golden Age of Murder (2016) Martin Edwards
@NgaioMarshAudiobooks on YouTube
Ngaio Marsh telling a story about her childhood

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This transcript is generated by a computer and there may be some mis-spellings and strange punctuation. We try to catch these before posting, but some things slip through.

SarahWelcome to Clued in Mystery. I’m Sarah.
BrookAnd I’m Brook and we both love mystery.
SarahHi Brook.
BrookHi Sarah. Do you mind if I share something special before we start today’s topic?
SarahNo go ahead.
BrookSo we recently released a workplace thriller episode and during our talk we mentioned that it was harder than we expected to find books in that subgenre. Well, our listener Mary E. heard our call and emailed us with some suggestions. So she recommends Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan series and this is where the main character Tess is a reporter covering the murder beat for a local newspaper. And her other recommendation is Force of Nature by Jane Harper. And this is a mystery about a coworker team bonding experience gone bad.
SarahOh those both sound great.
BrookYeah, they really do and this is a great example of some of the extra little fun nuggets we’ll be sharing in our soon to be released newsletter, Clued in Chronicle. So if you’d like to join the waitlist for that, please visit our website.
SarahThank you for that, Brook. So today we are going to be speaking about Golden Age author Ngaio Marsh. And I’m so excited to share a little bit about her. I knew virtually nothing about her before I started researching for today’s episode. Edith Ngaio Marsh was born April 23, 1895, in Christchurch, New Zealand. She was the only child of Henry and Rose Marsh. There is some confusion surrounding the exact date of her birth as paperwork was not filed for four years and apparently Marsh herself claimed occasionally to have been born in 1899. And I read one place that suggested that she actually chose April 23 as her birth date because that is William Shakespeare’s birth date. Although she is perhaps best known outside New Zealand for her crime fiction, theater and art were also very important to her and feature extensively in her writing. While she was enrolled at an all-girls school, she started studying art at what is now the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, studying full time after graduating high school.
SarahArt continued to be a focus in Marsh’s life and between 1927 and 1947, she had seven exhibitions as a founding member of a New Zealand art collective that remained influential for 50 years. Marsh’s parents met as performers in a theater company, and theater would play a role throughout her life as well. She started writing plays while in high school and in 1916, she followed in her parents’ footsteps and joined a touring theater company. She would continue to write, direct, act in, and produce several productions in the UK and in New Zealand until she died. Her father, Henry, had been one of ten children. He and his brothers left England for the colonies, scattering to Canada, South Africa, and in her father’s case, New Zealand. Accordingly, Marsh felt a strong connection to Britain and in 1928 left New Zealand for the UK to stay with close friends. She split her time between the wo countries for the rest of her life. In 1931, she was living in London running a home goods shop with a friend when she started writing her first detective novel. This was, as listeners of earlier episodes will remember, a time when Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and other members of the newly formed Detection Club were enjoying considerable success with their puzzle mysteries. A Man Lay Dead is set in a country house at a weekend party where the guests were invited to solve a fictional murder, a popular pastime that Marsh herself had participated in, only at this weekend someone of course is really murdered. She submitted her novel to publishers in 1932 but shortly afterward returned to New Zealand to care for her ailing mother. It was published in 1934 and she ultimately published 32 novels between then and 1982, with a thirty-third novel published in 2018. Stella Duffy finished it based on three chapters that Marsh had written and her notes. All of her novels feature detective Roderick Allen, who like Sayers’, Lord Peter Wimsey, attended Eaton and is aristocratic.
SarahBut unlike many detectives of the time, is employed as a policeman rather than detecting as a hobby and he’s far more recognizable as an everyman. Most of Marsh’s books take place in the UK, although five including Money in the Morgue the one that was published in 2018, are set in New Zealand. Through these she also explores colonialism and the Māori culture, although it’s through the lens of a settler. Marsh also wrote several short stories and wrote a column for a New Zealand publication on life in London during her first stint in the UK. When she was in Christchurch, she would often give talks on London life. And a few of them were broadcast on radio, which led to her reading one of her novels to radio listeners. Surfeit of Lampreys she read it in twenty 20-minute segments. Her voice was considered to be quite deep, but I found a YouTube clip and it sounded really rich and warm to me. So, it would have been I’m sure lovely to hear her reading her own work. Marsh was named to the Order of the British Empire in 1948 and then appointed a dame in 1966. She’s celebrated in New Zealand for her contributions to art and theater. But less so for her crime writing, despite her international fame. On one return to London, her publisher arranged for 100,000 copies of 10 of her novels to be printed at the same time. So put a million copies of her books into the market. Little is known about her private life, and she destroyed most of her personal papers before she died. According to her biographer Joanne Drayton, Marsh regretted not being a mother. However, she developed close relationships with her cousin’s children. She never married though she had a fiancé who was killed in the first world war.
SarahNgaio Marsh died in 1982 at the age of 86 in Christchurch, but continues to be celebrated for her contributions to art, theater, and crime writing.
BrookThank you, Sarah. That was wonderful. And I’m like you. I knew zero about Ngaio Marsh before our research this week and found her to be such a fascinating, well-rounded woman.
SarahTotally yeah, like she was she was always doing multiple things right? She she wrote what did I say 33 books but was while she was writing her books, she was directing plays or writing plays. Painting? Yeah, just really fascinating.
BrookVery active I um, because I was such a novice about her I started by listening to a couple of episodes of Shedunnit which is ah Carolyn Crampton’s fantastic podcast about mystery. And she has two episodes about Ngaio Marsh, if anyone’s interested, that are a great overview, I would say. And she refers to the four queens of crime which Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, and Marjorie Allingham. So now we’re covering up to three, Sarah. We’ve got one more to go but I was thinking that in that group, at least we still have to learn about Marjorie Allingham, but the other two ladies I would say that writing and authoring was their prime artistry. But with Ngaio Marsh, like we just said, she was doing so many different creative endeavors. She was just ah, creative in so many different ways, which I think added a certain layer and richness to her mysteries.
SarahYeah, I mean I think Agatha Christie, she definitely wrote some plays. But I think for the impression that I get is that theater was like just a part of Ngaio Marsh’s life right? Her parents met in the theater. Um.
SarahIn one of the biographies that I was reading it said that you know she made sure that there was a place for her father in a lot of the plays that she was producing. So even as he was aging because it was such an important thing to him she made sure that there was an opportunity for him. Even if it was just to like be on stage for one scene, which you know I think like that just speaks to how important it was to her and and to her father.
BrookAbsolutely and we’ve learned that she had a really close wonderful relationship with her father. I think that she was ah you know to use cliche kind of a daddy’s girl so that is very sweet that she continued to do that. And you know that was what she was known for in New Zealand was her theater work her um, directing plays. Especially you know Shakespearean plays ah much more so than her crime fiction.
SarahYeah I got the impression that in New Zealand her writing is almost um, considered an afterthought where she really is a celebrity for her theater work and you know I think the national theater is named after her. And she established um like a theater school I think. I think I read somewhere that Sam Neil, who so he was the you know, one of the scientists in Jurassic Park. He studied with her which is, you know, really neat.
BrookYeah, that’s a good point because Ngaio Marsh lived until 1982, so you know you and I were around Sarah it’s very fun to know that this person who you know was born in the late 1800s had such a nice long life that people who are still around to contribute to all sorts of creative endeavors knew her and met her. In one of the Carolyn Crampton episodes one of her interviewees had spent time with Ngaio Marsh. Her family were friends ah of that family and so she could give some firsthand references and I thought that that was just so great.
SarahAh, that’s incredible. Yeah. I think it’s I think it’s really interesting that she almost had these kind of dual lives, right? Internationally she was a Queen of Crime. And she was a member of the Detection Club, though not until the 1970s. She attended a meeting in I think the late 1930s I think it was 1937 um, she attended one of the ceremonies and um I think it had ah a lasting impact on her, but she didn’t actually get to become a member herself until 1974.
BrookYeah, and I liked the idea that we know that that was the era when Agatha Christie was the president. So, she was probably conducting the ceremony that inducted Ngaio Marsh into the Detection Club. So, I just love that visual.
SarahSo that meeting that she attended in 1937 I don’t think she knew Agatha Christie at the time, but I’d like to think that the two of them developed a relationship after that as Marsh’s crime writing became more popular.
BrookYeah I hope so too. That would be such a neat thing to know what kind of relationship those two fantastic women had. I found some fun similarities between the two of them in my research. It was mentioned that Ngaio Marsh had a similar type of freedom in her childhood where she could run around the grounds of their large estate and that was similar, Agatha Christie also had that and got to have their imaginary worlds. She also taught herself to read at age 4 or 5, which we know Agatha did as well and they both had this impetus to try out crime writing by reading a novel and then saying “oh I think I could do that” so they they gave it a shot. And it suspected that Ngaio Marsh actually had read a Christie and wanted to try her hand at it.
SarahWell I would I would believe that, because it was the early 1930s and you know several of Christie’s books had been released by then so including the Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
SarahI read a few of her books or listened to a few of her books to prepare for this and actually only just learned and I’m really kicking myself for not having looked this up earlier, but there are audio versions of several of her stories available on YouTube including versions that are read by Benedict Cumberbatch. And so he pronounces her detective as A-lane but Wikipedia lists is name as being pronounced as Allen. So I’m not sure who to believe there is it is it Allen or or A-lane. I would probably read it as A-lane just because of the way that it’s spelled. But, I will include links to a couple of those as well as a link to the audio clip that I found of her ah recounting a story from her childhood. And yeah, she just had this really rich, warm voice.
BrookOh that sounds great. I definitely want to hear her voice because that’s something that comes up again and again is that she had like you said this deep, nearly they describe it as like nearly a masculine voice so I would love to hear her actual tone that would be great. And that’s what I where I found something to listen to of her work. I listened to A Man Lay Dead, which is the first of the Roderick Alleyn books via Youtube so that was a great find. And I found her story to be like I could tell the influence of the theater I felt like the dialogue you know the dialogue was really believable and she had great interplay between characters. And I think that that’s something that she’s known for is better characterization and better use of setting then maybe some of the other Golden Age writers. I have heard it said that her plots aren’t as strong as Christie but come on whose are. But I I really liked the description and the narrative.
SarahYeah I I would agree I mean I I saw the same kind of um suggestion that her work is perhaps a little bit more literary than ah, some of her contemporaries. I actually listened to Money in the Morgue which is the one that was published after her death. So you know published in 2018. Stella Duffy wrote it based on, um, Marsh had written the first three chapters and I guess left some notes in the title of the book and then Stella Duffy finished it. And I I thought it was great I really really liked it. And I would say that. I like Ngaio Marsh’s work more than I like Sayers.
BrookI think I would have to listen to more read or listen to more to make be able to make that um decision because I do really like Dorothy L. Sayers. But. I see where you were coming from because it it is more I think literary is a great description. I think that her ah observations about life and people are really astute and I I enjoyed that. She can sum up a character in a very succinct way. And I think that that probably comes from her knowledge about drama and theater. Um, she could just in a turn of phrase and you would just have a picture of who that person is and who who they’re going to be in this story. So I really liked that.
BrookAlthough I didn’t get a chance to read money in the morgue I did find a great interview. It’s a podcast interview with Stella Duffy so we can link that as well. And it was about her experience in being chosen to co-author that’s the way it’s billed on the book with Ngaio Marsh.
BrookAnd it’s a great interview kind of talking about that process of what that was like taking these notes and then trying to um, fill in the blanks and and create the rest of the story. But I also enjoyed it because um Stella Duffy is a kiwi so she really could tell listeners a lot about what life was like perhaps in New Zealand when Ngaio was writing. And some of the prejudice I guess that she experienced against being a genre fiction author because we. You mentioned earlier that she was really known well for her theater work. But um, commercial fiction just kind of wasn’t the thing for new zealanders and so ah, that was something that she wasn’t ah honored for during her life and Stella Duffy but had a way of really describing that because of course she is um, a New Zealander herself so that was a great interview.
SarahYeah, that sounds like ah like a great resource, Brook and I think Stella Duffy’s background is in theater as well and so she’s got that connection with um with Ngaio Marsh and can really draw on that. Yeah I so I picked that up in the book as well.
SarahThere are also on YouTube, although I didn’t watch any of them. But I did find them when when I was searching. There are some of the TV adaptations of her work and there hasn’t been a lot of screen adaptations of her work. But there was a series in the 1960s and then another one in the early 1990s and there were some radio adaptations in the 1990s and in 2010 I believe. You know we’ve said this about some of the other authors that we’ve talked about I think there is opportunity there for some more um, some more screen adaptation of . . . I really liked her detective.
BrookYes, I completely agree and I would love to see the um because they’re adaptations. They don’t have to be verbatim of stories as we’ve you know, definitely discovered like let’s just have this whole New Zealand thing. Because I love to learn more about that culture and that setting would be so fun and something that we don’t see a lot um I think in films and television. Or enough. Maybe we don’t see it enough. So I agree let’s let’s get some adaptations of some Ngaio Marsh going.
SarahYeah, no I think I think it would be great.
SarahOk, well thank you, Brook this was really fun to talk about Ngaio Marsh, one of the four queens of crime now we’ve um, done profiles on three of them. We still have Marjorie Allingham to do, which I think will be great as well.
BrookYes, thanks, Sarah this was wonderful as usual and thank you all for listening today to clued in mystery I’m Brook.
SarahAnd I’m Sarah and we both love mystery.