Friday Fatales: Women of Mystery is an occasional series in which we honor an author recognized for her contribution to the genre of mystery (or suspense, noir, thriller, and crime fiction).
Edith Ngaio Marsh, an only child of amateur actors, was born in Fendalton, Christchurch, New Zealand on April 23, 1895 (although some sources indicate 1899).
Ngaio (pronounced “nigh-o”) Marsh is considered one of the original “Queens of Crime” — the female writers who dominated the crime fiction genre during the Golden Age of Detective Fiction in the 1920s and 1930s, alongside Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, and Dorothy L. Sayers.
She was also a noted theatrical producer and many of her mysteries involve theaters and actors. In addition to the theatre and crime fiction, her other passion was painting.
From the age of 28, she divided her time between New Zealand and the U.K.
Between 1932 and 1982, Ngaio authored 32 novels (most are set in England; four are set in New Zealand) and she published an autobiography, Black Beech and Honeydew, in 1965. Her most famous character is Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn, a gentleman detective who works for the Criminal Investigation Department of the Metropolitan Police in London.
The detective’s name appears on the list of “20 Best Super Sleuth Names for Boys” on nameberry.com.
As an example of Ngaio’s popularity was the “Marsh Million” day in 1949, when 100,000 copies each of ten of her titles were released to the world market by Penguin and Collins.
In recognition to her contributions to theatre, Ngaio Marsh was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1966.
Nine of her novels were adapted as The Inspector Alleyn Mysteries and aired on BBC in 1993 and 1994. Many of her novels are marked by her strong characterizations. She was known for her attention to police procedures and a strong sense of humor.
Her victims were murdered in unusual ways, such as impaling, spraying with weedkiller, suffocating in a bale of wool, a fatal head wound caused by a rigged bottle of champagne, and boiling in a mud pool.
In 1978, Ngaio received the MWA’s Grand Master Award for Lifetime Achievement as a detective novelist.
When writing about Dame Ngaio Marsh, Bruce Harding notes in Kotare 2007, Special Issue — Essays in New Zealand Literary Biography Series One: “Women Prose Writers to World War I”:
Marsh believed that detective fiction is by its nature shapely and, as such, ‘can command our aesthetic approval’ and explained why:
It must have a beginning, a middle and an end. The middle must be an extension and development of the beginning and the end must be implicit in both. The writing is as good as the author can make it: nervous, taut, balanced and economic. Descriptive passages are vivid and explicit. The author is not self-indulgent. If he commands a good style, there is every reason for maintaining it. In an age of immensely long and undisciplined novels we can do with some shapely ones and in the midst of much pretentious obscurity a touch of lucidity is not unwelcome.
(Ngaio’s comments are from her piece, ‘Entertainments’, in the January 1978 issue of Pacific Moana Quarterly.)
Ngaio Marsh never married or had children. She died in her New Zealand home in February, 1982, at age 86 (or 82, depending on the source). Her obituary published in The New York Times contained a quote from the author regarding her name: ”What does ‘Ngaio’ mean?” she once said. ”I don’t know. Like many Maori words it has a number of meanings – clever, light on the water, a little bug – but I don’t know which my parents had in mind.”
Beside a meaning of ‘clever,’ Ngaio is the name of a flowering shrub native to New Zealand; it can also mean brightness or brilliance, which symbolises enlightenment or great wisdom, and “reflections on the water.” Some sources indicate the name was chosen by her uncle.
The Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel, established in 2010, promotes andcelebrates excellence in crime, mystery and thriller writing by New Zealand authors. It is awarded each year in a ceremony held in Christchurch.
Photo: Ngaio Marsh House & Heritage Trust
Christchurch is also home of the Ngaio Marsh House and Heritage Trust. The house is the original four-bedroom cottage built for the Marsh family in 1905. It was Ngaio’s home for 77 years, where many of her possessions remain.
Check out the extensive bibliography of Dame Ngaio Marsh.
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