Ngaio Edith Marsh was born in Christchurch, New Zealand on 23 April 1899. Marsh worked as an
actress, theatrical producer and interior decorator before publishing her first novel,
A Man Lay Dead, in 1934. This, and all subsequent novels, featured her series character
Chief-Inspector Roderick Alleyn. Whilst not having the characteristic idiosyncrasies of other
detectives, such as Poirot and Wimsey,
Alleyn is a good solid and erudite character benefitting from one of Marsh's greatest strengths,
her ability to give all of her characters depth and colour.
Marsh called heavily on her theatrical background throughout her literary career. Many of her novels were set in theatres and most had theatrical references. The theatre based novels are very successful, holding a fine balance between detail, authenticity and the danger of boring the reader with excess. When not based in the theatre, Marsh tended to set her novels in the 'English Country Village' and these were not quite as polished. The characters and plotting were of the usual high standard, but they were a little 'too English', which was a fault with many American writers as well. In the interest of balance, the very same criticism can be levelled at English attempts to write American based hard boiled crime fiction. A further minor criticism is the frequency with which Alleyn's family and friends appear to witness or be present at the scene of the crime. Alleyn's wife Troy, an artist, is an excellent character though and is a great foil to Alleyn. Her inclusion does much to enhance and broaden the plots.
These very minor criticisms do not detract from what is a superior canon of detective fiction titles. Marsh was, and still is, regarded as one of the most respected authors in the genre. Although her novels enjoyed great success, her first love was always the theatre. By her own admission, Marsh considered her literary efforts as "just a pastime."
Marsh received accolades for both of her careers from Universities and the Mystery Writers of America. She was also awarded the OBE and the DBE. Ngaio Marsh passed away in 1982 and despite being in her 80s she was still writing. Her last novel, Light Thickens, was published in the same year as her death. Her legacy was over thirty novels and a remarkable consistency of plotting, characters and quality prose. In short, an author highly recommended to all.
Text © 2004 R.D. Collins
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