Ngaio Marsh

Back in February I posted about how I was starting to explore murder mystery author P.D. James (1920-2014). As it turned out, I decided she wasn’t really my cup of tea. I’ll say a bit more about that later in this Mystery Monday post, but the main topic today is Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982), a murder mystery author from New Zealand who definitely is my cup of tea.

She’s a close contemporary of Agatha Christie (1890-1976), born just five years later and dying just six years after Christie did. She lived 86 years compared to Christie’s 85.

More relevant to me, she’s a close contemporary in terms of her writing. I’ve read 15 of her novels so far and have thoroughly enjoyed each one.

Murder mystery authors generally have a recurring character that solves the mystery. The example everyone knows (even non-fans of the genre) is Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) and his famous private detective Sherlock Holmes. Almost as famous is his sidekick Dr. John Watson.

Many fictional detectives have their Watson. For instance, Christie’s Hercule Poirot had Captain Arthur Hastings. Dorothy L. Sayers teamed her murder-solving Lord Peter Wimsey with his valet Mervyn Bunter. Rex Stout teamed Nero Wolfe with Archie Goodwin. Even Bernie Rhodenbarr (by Lawrence Block) has his friend Carolyn Kaiser. The sidekick is a common addition. They add an audience insert, a foil for the detective to explain things to.

There are counter-examples: Sam Spade (by Dashiell Hammett); Philip Marlowe (by Raymond Chandler); Miss Marple (by Agatha Christie); Kinsey Millhone (by Sue Grafton); and V.I. Warshawski (by Sara Paretsky).

[Until I wrote that paragraph, it never occurred to me how most female murder mystery solvers don’t have sidekicks. Even Nancy Drew worked alone (although her boyfriend Ned Nickerson sometimes helped). I wonder if that isn’t a bit of a social statement by their authors. Or at least a personal perception about the nature of the world. Or just channeling the hard-bitten Sam Spade/Philip Marlowe PI model. (One exception might be the partnership of Tuppence and Tommy.)]

§ §

Ngaio (‘n-eye-oh’) Marsh’s recurring character is Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn, a gentleman (in the British sense) who works for the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) at Scotland Yard. Unlike the above-cited private detectives (or in the case of Miss Marple or Lord Peter Wimsey, private individuals), Marsh’s stories are police procedurals as well as “cozy” British murder mysteries.

Chief Inspector Alleyn often (but not always) works with a sidekick, Inspector Fox.

Most of the stories take place in England, often in or around London. A handful take place in Marsh’s homeland, New Zealand, either because Alleyn is on vacation or, in two cases, because Alleyn is working in counter-intelligence there during the war (#12, Colour Scheme, 1943, and #13, Died in the Wool, 1945).

As the two titles just cited may suggest, Marsh sometimes enjoys making a pun of her titles. I just finished #15, Swing Brother Swing (1949), which is a reference to both swing music (a key part of the story) and what happens when a murderer is hung by the neck (the death penalty in England at the time). Other titles refer to Shakespeare (#2, Enter a Murderer, 1935) or other literary works.


Marsh was also a theatre director and playwright (which endears her to me; see My Life 2.0). Many of her stories involve theatre people. Some involve killings that happen onstage (#2, mentioned above, and #5, Vintage Murder (1937), which features death by champagne bottle during an afterparty held onstage, and #8, Overture to Death (1939)).

Her other great love was painting, which she studied in New Zealand before joining a theatre company as an actress. The sixth Alleyn novel, Artists in Crime (1938), introduces (fictional) famous painter Agatha Troy, who Alleyn eventually marries. In #14, Final Curtain (1947), Troy, now married to Alleyn, is commissioned to paint a famous actor — who is murdered, bringing her husband into the scene to solve the crime.

Having gobbled down fifteen of her novels in less than a month (I love being retired; so much reading time!), there is a very vague sense of repeated motifs, but I don’t find myself at all put out by that. I loved the theatre and enjoyed revisiting it in her stories. (I only wish I knew my Shakespeare better, or much at all about painting, because that would enrich them even more.)


One thing that’s a lot of fun about her stories is that her characters are often self-aware about detective fiction and murder mysteries. Christie’s Hercule Poirot often made oblique references to Sherlock Holmes. Marsh’s characters frequently refer to other fictional detectives (Holmes, Poirot, and Lord Peter are all mentioned explicitly). In one case, a character suggests pretending they’re in a detective novel and how they’re about halfway through the story. And, in fact, this happens about halfway through the book.

Both Christie and Marsh wrote with a delightfully light touch. There is much that makes one grin and even a few laugh-out-loud moments. Both authors created delightful characters, many you’d like to know (and some you’d like to avoid). Both authors (Christie more than Marsh) often include romantic sub-threads where two characters discover love.

I find that Marsh brings her characters to life in a way that sticks with me. In contrast, I’ve noticed that the characters of P.D. James don’t. I often have to search back in the book to remember who someone is in the context of the plot.

§ §

Speaking of James, the more of her novels I read, the less I enjoyed her work.

She indulges in lots of very long digressions into character backstories and ponderings. She also uses way too much description of things, especially building architecture, for my liking. My eyes glaze, and I skim.

And I think her writing has something of an elitest tone — literary writing for people with a lot of knowledge about long-dead poets, authors, and painters. As such, she may be more of a writer’s writer than a people’s writer, which may be why she isn’t nearly as popular as Agatha Christie (who was very much a people’s writer and whose writing was so accessible that many incorrectly think she wasn’t a good writer).

Her books, especially the later ones, are extremely long, usually paging out around the 1000-page mark. In one case, there was 240 pages of backstory and character development before anything interesting happened. Worse, her stories tend to be grim and unhappy. She has none of the light touch Christie had that made reading her books such a joy. There is no joy in Jamesville.

James has a recurring character, Detective Chief Inspector Adam Dalgliesh. (These stories are also police procedurals.) As an example of her typical grimness, Dalgliesh lost his wife (and son) in childbirth. Nearly all her characters have tragedy, or a grim upbringing, in their background. I find it gets really old. And depressing.

One note I made while reading says: “All her characters are constantly reading into things. They’re burdened by implications and meaningless crap. All her characters are overly self-aware and introspective.” It makes for heavy-handed reading, all that long-winded implication and introspective.

[An example from another source: On the TV series NCIS, the fraidy cat Tim McGee is disturbed to find out he slept in a “coffin” when he stayed overnight at Abby’s place. She’d told him it was a wooden box-bed. Once he learns it was actually a “coffin” he’s upset. I don’t understand that even a little. It’s dumb. It’s all implication — what McGee “thinks” about coffins, even new unused ones. James’s characters do this constantly. They’re upset by implications with no real meaning. It makes me wonder if James herself lives in a fearful world where the implications of things affect her profoundly. I just don’t live in that world.]

I find her incredibly long-winded. In one book, a character writes what amounts to a confession/suicide letter. It goes on for 80 pages. It’s like a mini novel in the P.D. James style of over-describing and over-explaining. 80 pages!

This is based on reading books #7 through #10 (1986-1997) of the fourteen Dalgliesh mysteries. I finally got #1, Cover Her Face (1962), from the library and enjoyed it a bit more. Because it was much shorter. I most recently read #2, A Mind to Murder (1963), and it wasn’t too bad.

I’ve got #3, Unnatural Causes (1967), still on hold, but after that I think I’m done with James. She’s too long-winded, too psychological, and too grim for my taste. I prefer the lighter touch of Christie and Marsh. James, perhaps in virtue of being a more modern author, wallows in negativity too much. The real world has more negativity than I can take; don’t need it in what I read for fun.

§ §

In contrast, I’ve greatly enjoyed the fifteen Ngaio Marsh novels and am looking forward to reading all 32 of them. (There’s a 33rd published posthumously and completed by a different author.)

The only negative comment I can make so far is that sometimes Marsh can be a little heavy-handed with exposition. Characters occasionally explain things to each other for the benefit of the reader. It’s not particularly objectionable, just something I’ve noticed a couple of times.

I do have a question about a term she used in two novels to describe, first, a train track, and in another, a mountain road: corkscrew. This, perhaps, is an archaic usage, or perhaps one unique to New Zealand. I’m pretty sure in both cases that she doesn’t mean the path literally spirals like a corkscrew. I think she’s referring to what most would call a series of “hairpin turns” winding up a mountain. It stuck out (and I made a note) because it confused me.

I’ll end on a positive note: I get a kick seeing how she brings Chief Inspector Alleyn into diverse situations — ones that might normally be outside his purview. In many cases, it’s because someone associated with the murder requests his help. In a few, it’s because he’s on vacation near where the murder occurred and gets roped into helping.

I mentioned that Alleyn’s partner-in-crime-solving is Inspector Fox, but there is also Nigel Bathgate, a journalist Alleyn meets in the first novel. Bathgate reappears in a number of later books, and sometimes helps Alleyn (in return for a scoop). In this sense, he’s a bit like Watson, who documented Holmes. (In fact, Marsh has a number of minor characters that recur in various novels.)

§ §

And now, on to #16, Opening Night (1951). The title suggests another theatre-based story!

Stay solving, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

7 responses to “Ngaio Marsh

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Just started Opening Night. Yep, definitely another story with a theatre context. (Interestingly, the character she’s introduced on page one hasn’t been named yet.)

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Still really enjoying Ngaio Marsh! I’m now reading #23, Dead Water (1964). It makes me a little sad that there are only nine more after this one. (Ten if you count the posthumous Money in the Morgue, which Marsh never finished. It was completed by Stella Duffy and published in 2018.)

  • Wyrd Smythe

    From my notes, another example of how long-winded P.D. James is. She describes a visit Dalgliesh makes to a witness: three pages describing his drive, three more being shown around the witness’s garden, and four more of meaningless chit-chat before getting to the interview. Ten pages to get to the point. Most authors would spend a page or two. Some might call it color, but I call it boring.

  • Mark Edward Jabbour

    Oh my, you complain about verbosity? Okay. Can you talk about that? 😉🍻

  • Mark Edward Jabbour

    Yours. I’ve no interest it James. Or the genre in general.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      We’re talking about art, so a lot of it is subjective, and verbosity is largely a judgement call by the reader. “One man’s mead being another man’s poison,” as they say. No doubt some readers love reading James, but I prefer less description in fiction.

      Which is another aspect of this: fiction versus non-fiction. Verbosity in fiction is color, flavor, or character, but in non-fiction it’s hopefully detail, in-depth explanation, or analogies to help the reader understand. And it’s hard to judge how much information to include. Again, it’s reader-subjective. Some might feel lost because there isn’t enough information, others might feel there’s too much. I would never want to leave a reader behind, so I tend to error on the side of more rather than less. Readers who don’t need the information can skim past it (as I do with over-much description in fiction).

      I try to keep posts under 2000 words, but it’s not a hard limit. I’m a communicator, and I’ve done a fair bit of teaching, so I’m certainly not a “man of few words.” When one has a head full of interesting information, one likes to share the wealth!

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