‘Of the four Queens of Crime who dominated the 1930s – Margery Allingham, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy L. Sayers – Ngaio Marsh reigns supreme for excellence of style and characterisation,’ writes Margaret Lewis in her introduction. The proposition could be contested; it could be maintained that Christie is more ingenious, Allingham more lively and Sayers has more intellectual weight. But Margaret Lewis’s problem as a biographer is not so much finding a raison d’être for her work as making it interesting. For though her subject’s life was undoubtedly mouvementê, in that much of it was spent on the ocean wave, voyaging between England and New Zealand, events such as Christie’s disappearance or Sayers’s peculiar marriage are not to be found: the most exciting story in the book is that of a cocktail party Ngaio Marsh gave in Christchurch in 1953. Her young cousin forgot to dilute a potent mixture; the cream of local society, including the Dean and the Bishop, succumbed to insobriety, one elderly lady being discovered unconscious beneath the piano by her dog, which, alarmed by her absence, had come to investigate. The difficulty is compounded by her subject’s reluctance to reveal anything whatsoever of her inner self, whether in conversation, letters, diaries or autobiography. Her memoirs, Black Beech and Honeydew, should, she later remarked, have been called ‘Other People’, and her editor at Collins describes it as ‘pretty dull, largely because of her reticence’.
Ngaio Marsh was born in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1895. Reference works give her date of birth as 1899, the year in which it was registered by her father Henry, who, absent-minded and impractical though he was, must surely have noticed her existence earlier. A bank clerk, he lived with his daughter until his death, becoming, when widowed, a grouchy bore. The family was dominated by her mother, Rose, an amateur actress, who had played Lady Macbeth in a professional production: ‘the scathing taunts by which Macbeth is spurred to his first crime were delivered with intense naturalness and power,’ commented the Christchurch Press. At the age of 12, after a petty misdemeanour, Ngaio wrote in her diary: ‘She will not speak or if she does it is only to be angry with me. Perhaps I will be able to do something to please her.’ Rose formed her daughter’s views on relationships with men: ‘Anything remotely provocative on my part or physically demonstrative on theirs was ... condemned as second-rate behaviour,’ Ngaio later wrote, adding that she wondered ‘why such demonstrations of physical affection as came my way should have the bad taste to be agreeable’. Even at 25 she was afraid to anger her mother by having her long hair cut short.
After finishing school in 1913, she went to Christchurch art college. Painting was important to her throughout her life: the artist Agatha Troy, with whom her hero the policeman Roderick Alleyn falls in love in Artists in Crime and later marries, is obviously an alter ego. Her involvement with the theatre began about the same time, and immediately after the war she toured New Zealand as an actress with a professional company, hobbling her knees with a stocking to prevent her taking the immense strides that went with her height. There are, at this time, rumours of an understanding with a young man who was killed in Flanders; an unsuitable Russian émigré declares his love, and then commits suicide; an equally unsuitable middle-aged Englishman does likewise and dies of natural causes. Her mother fears that marriage would mean the end of an artistic career; Ngaio apparently agrees; Henry, especially in later years, actively resents men who are her friends.
In 1928, at the age of 33, she travels to England for the first time, and stays with Tahu and Nelly Rhodes who, when in New Zealand, had been among her closest friends. Nelly is Lord Plunket’s eldest daughter, and the family are depicted as the aristocratic Lampreys in the detective story Surfeit of Lampreys. Her view of English society is formed by this first encounter, and persists throughout her novels – to their detriment, it might be considered. In 1955 a BBC memorandum, considering the adaptation of Scales of Justice, remarks: ‘We would have to eliminate the appalling snobbishness.’ She sets up, together with Nelly, a small shop in Beauchamp Place, named Touch and Go, selling bric-à-brac, later turning it into an interior-decorating business. She tried to write a New Zealand novel, producing two chapters, into which she put ‘mountains and a handful of people’. But inspiration flagged, and on a wet afternoon in 1931 she splashed out from her basement flat in Bourne Street, bought exercise books, pencils and a pencil-sharpener at the local stationer’s shop, and sat down in front of the fire to write A man lay dead, the first of her 31 detective stories about Roderick Alleyn of Scotland Yard.
It is not a terribly good detective story, lapsing into melodrama with the introduction of a sub-plot involving Russian terrorists. She was to do much better in the future. But A man lay dead and most of its successors all have the same flaw; a flaw endemic to this type of detective story, but exacerbated in the case of Ngaio Marsh by the fact that she was a novelist manqué. The traditional story begins by establishing the scene: a small group of characters, often in an isolated situation. Rivalries are described, jealousies revealed, enmities hinted at. But then the murder takes place, the detectives arrive, the point of view abruptly switches from the suspects to the investigators, interplay between characters is replaced by tables representing the presence or absence of alibis. The discontinuity is usually apparent, but with the detective novelist proper – Christie or Sayers – the investigation is more important and more engrossing than the scene-setting. The opposite is true of Ngaio Marsh. In False Scent, for example, one of her better books, the character of a domineering, selfish, spoilt and self-obsessed actress, who tyrannises those around her, is built up with great skill. She is then, with some justification, squirted with a compound of hexa-ethyl-tetraphosphate, which causes her death and simultaneously snuffs the life out of the book.
Ngaio Marsh’s other mistake was to saddle herself with ‘Handsome’ Alleyn, as he is known to the press. He comes from the society in which she had been moving: he has been in the Foreign Office before joining the Force; his brother is a baronet; his mother, Lady Alleyn, breeds Alsatians. It is difficult to know which is the more objectionable: Alleyn’s repulsively whimsical interior monologues or the coos of adoration with which he is received by the female characters, who are invariably reminded of a monk or a Spanish grandee. The problem was, of course, that she fell in love with Alleyn: projecting herself into Agatha Troy, she not only made herself what she had always wanted to be, a brilliant and famous artist, but she also gave herself a tall, dark, handsome husband, an ideal marriage and, later, an odiously precocious son. The same pattern is apparent in Dorothy L. Sayers’s work: as the detective novelist Harriet Vane, she falls in love with and marries her detective, Lord Peter Wimsey. But Wimsey, though objectionably fatuous in the early stories, does at least later develop into a weightier and indeed a more serious character than Alleyn, always less interesting than many who surround him. Lord Ballantrae, a friend of Marsh, later wrote to her that he had always thought Wimsey ‘a consummate bounder – the sort of chap I meet in Whites! ... but your Alleyn is a real chum – more like a member of Brooks’s!’ The comment perhaps sheds more light on the clubs than on the characters. Agatha Christie, who obviously got bored with Hercule Poirot, escaped the trap: but it would have been hard to have been consumed with ardent passion for an elderly, egg-shaped Belgian.
Marsh returned to New Zealand in 1932; her mother died a few months after her arrival; this, she remarked in her autobiography, marked her own coming of age. She was then 37. More books followed; there was another trip to Europe in 1937-8. From 1943 to 1947 she produced a series of plays with student actors in the Little Theatre at Canterbury University: a period which has been called the Golden Age of New Zealand drama. She puts on Hamlet (in modern dress), Othello, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Henry V, Macbeth, Julius Caesar and others, and forms close relationships with many of the young actors; much later one describes having an audition with her as the equivalent to ‘playing Pip to a time-resistant Miss Havisham’. A tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1949 is a triumphant success. In 1951 she takes a professional company from England down under: the tour is a failure. She is made an honorary lecturer in drama at the University; the Little Theatre burns down in 1953; its replacement is given her name, and she is awarded the DBE for her work. Meanwhile she meets Vladimir Muling, a Russian émigré, married and homosexual, and, at the age of 58, falls deeply in love. He dies ten years later.
There are more novels, more plays, more trips to Europe. In 1960 she visits Japan and the United States, and, while staying in Montpelier Walk, buys a Jaguar XK 150, which she ships back to New Zealand. There are financial problems – in 1982, for one of her last novels, the advance from Collins is £1000; there are tax problems, though not at all on the scale of those with which Agatha Christie had to contend. She worked on what was to be her last novel, Light thickens, not so much a detective story as an account of an ideal production of Macbeth. Her diatribes against the New Zealand accent, a constant theme in her writings – even the detective stories – become ever more vituperative and querulous and make her unpopular:
Why was it we dreamed your dream
Not our own?
Aimed to speak like English gentry
Twelve thousand miles from home?
So detested the sound of our own voices
We strangled them in the cradle of your desire?
Stood like costumed leaden sentries,
Affecting nobility, fearing your ire
If once we wore our own bodies instead?
Why to fulfil your living vision
Did we have to be pompous, stiff and dead?
a friend wrote after her death in February 1982.
Margaret Lewis has produced a workman-like and readable biography. Yet it has perhaps failed (as indeed has this review) to do full justice to Ngaio Marsh’s work in the theatre – possibly more important than her work as a detective novelist; and at the same time a much more difficult subject to treat, since concrete evidence must be replaced by hearsay. Nor indeed has Lewis succeeded in the equally difficult task of chipping away the public carapace to reveal the person within, though, given the subject’s reticence, this was perhaps a hopeless endeavour. To her credit she refrains from excessive psychological speculation: we are given the material, and must draw our own conclusions.