Ngaio Marsh Her Life in Crime

BOOK: Ngaio Marsh Her Life in Crime
6.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

For Suzanne Vincent Marshall

in memory of my father
Malcolm Drayton

and sincerest thanks to the staff of Alexander Turnbull Library and National Library of New Zealand


Every care has been taken to ensure accuracy; however, inconsistencies in Ngaio’s recollections and source material may result in some variation.


Born 23 April, Christchurch, New Zealand (birth not registered until 1899).

Secondary education at St Margaret’s College.

Studied painting at Canterbury College School of Art, Christchurch.

Toured with the Allan Wilkie Shakespeare Company and then with the Rosemary Rees Comedy Company.

Painted, freelance journalist and began working with repertory companies and Unlimited Charities to produce amateur theatrical productions.

Travelled to England.

Lived with the Rhodes family first at Gerrards Cross, then in London. Wrote articles for the Christchurch
under the title ‘New Canterbury Pilgrim’ and opened a design shop with Nelly Rhodes in Knightsbridge.

Wrote first detective fiction novel, which was submitted to literary agent just before being called back to her mother’s sickbed in New Zealand. Rose Marsh died 23 November 1932.

Established herself as one of the four Queens of Crime; exhibited paintings with the Christchurch Society of Arts and The Group; and produced plays.

Trip to Britain and tour of Europe with Betty Cotterill and Jean Webster.

Returned to New Zealand and became a Red Cross ambulance driver during the war.

Directed Shakespeare’s
for the Canterbury University College Drama Society.

Toured New Zealand with
under the aegis of Dan O’Connor.

Awarded OBE for services to drama and literature. Henry Marsh died 4 September.

Toured Australia with
Six Characters
under the aegis of Dan O’Connor.

Trip to England. Collins threw ‘Marsh Million’ party to celebrate the release of her books. Gathered a company for the British Commonwealth Theatre Company tour, which toured Australia and New Zealand before disbanding.

Writing and directing in Christchurch.

Travelled to England on board the cargo ship
which was the inspiration for
Singing in the Shrouds.

Writing and directing in Christchurch.

Promotional tour of East Asia, North America and Britain, and lived for over a year in London.

Wrote libretto for
A Unicorn for Christmas,
which was performed in front of Queen Elizabeth II. Delivered the Macmillan Brown Lectures (1962), and was awarded an honorary doctorate of literature by the University of Canterbury (1962).

Travelled to England, and while there was awarded DBE. Delayed her departure to attend investiture at Buckingham Palace in November.

Stayed in Rome with Doris and Alister McIntosh. Tour of northern Italy with Pamela Mann, followed by five weeks in London.

Six-month stay in Britain, with promotional trip to Denmark and visit to Elsinore.

Six-month stay in Britain extended to 18 months by cancer operation. This was her last trip to England.

Directed last production—
Sweet Mr Shakespeare.

Received the Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America Award. Travelled to Australia to see John Dacres-Mannings and his family.

Light Thickens,
her 32nd novel, just weeks before dying at home on 18 February, aged 86.

A Cradle in a Grave

ain beat incessantly against the window. All weekend she had been alone in her flat, immersed in books and distracted imaginings. The late afternoon light was almost gone as she reached decisively for her mackintosh and umbrella. She was ready, as ready as she would ever be. Up the basement steps she hurtled and onto the London street. The last stragglers of the day dashed purposefully past her, as she pulled the collar of her coat tight around her neck and bent into the weather. She moved swiftly, a tall, dark figure etched by streetlamps against unfolding blackness. Outside the local stationer’s she hesitated for an instant before thrusting into the smell ‘
of damp newsprint
, cheap magazines, and wet people’. She bought ‘six exercise books, a pencil and pencil sharpener and splashed back to the flat’. Against the wind that threw itself at walls and fingered its way around cracks, she heaped the coal fire in the grate and drew her chair closer. With pencil posed, and exercise book in her lap, she was prepared—for murder.

It was in this cramped room on a wintry day that Ngaio Marsh committed her first crime to paper.
A Man Lay Dead
was written quickly in a burst of beginner’s energy. She filled the exercise books in a matter of weeks, and when her mother returned from a motor trip with friends even she was forced to
accept that something remarkable had happened. ‘
I couldn’t put it down
,’ she said. Up to this point, Rose Marsh’s ambitions for her 36-year-old daughter had been theatrical, but in the deceptively clever intricacies of Ngaio’s writing she glimpsed, if reluctantly, a new plot.

It was 1931, the Depression. The poor and unemployed queued for food and shelter in lines that grew longer by the day. But, in the cosseted circles of privilege, it was also the heyday of the flapper and the frivolous weekend murder party. Since her arrival in England more than two years earlier, Ngaio had been drawn into this world and it was the inspiration for her book. The people she met became models for her murderers and her bodies, and their haunts became her crime scenes.

On the hall floor at Frantock, Sir Hubert Handesley’s country home, lies her first victim, with the blade of a ritual Russo-Mongolian dagger protruding from his back. The fortissimo bass voice of Doctor Tokareff singing Russian opera can be heard from an upstairs bedroom where he is dressing for dinner. Suddenly, the manor house is plunged into pitch blackness. In his room, handsome Fleet Street journalist Nigel Bathgate strikes a match, which gives him sufficient light to find the landing and grope his way downstairs. ‘The house was alive with the voices of the guests, calling, laughing, questioning…The sudden blaze from the chandelier was blinding. On the stairs Wilde, his wife, Tokareff, Handesley, and Angela all shrank from it.’ Here it is, the stuff of nightmares, waiting to unleash chaos among the sports-car-driving, dress-for-dinner, horsey set. Stunned guests collect around the body.

Motive for murder abounds. For in life the corpse was a womanizer, a good-looking, smooth-talking purveyor of envy. His girlfriend waited too long for their wedding; his mistress was an old school chum’s wife. There will be few mourners at his funeral and even fewer who will find no silver lining in his coffin. But the measure of a man’s character does not diminish the horror of murder. When a crime has been committed the perpetrator must be brought to justice, and few things galvanize the agencies of social control faster than a suspicious death. So the telephone call is made, and into this tight, almost claustrophobic plot walks the tall, distinguished figure of Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn.

He arrives by chance. The local superintendent is down with an acute attack of gastric flu. Because of Sir Hubert’s status and illustrious political career, the local office has been forced to appeal to Scotland Yard. Alleyn is thrilled to head the case.

‘What’s the matter with you?’ Detective-Inspector Boys asked, noting his superior’s enthusiasm. ‘Has someone found you a job?’

‘You’ve guessed my boyish secret. I’ve been given a murder to solve—aren’t I a lucky little detective.’

Hurriedly, he assembles his ‘flash’ and ‘dab’ men—Detective Sergeant Smith with his Box Brownie and Detective Sergeant Bailey carrying his fingerprint apparatus; they head for a waiting car. Two hours later, Alleyn and his men are standing in the hall at Frantock.

The weekend party has assembled at Sir Hubert’s manor house to play the Murder Game. Vassily Vassilyevitch, Sir Hubert’s Russian retainer, was to give a scarlet plaque to whichever guest he chose to be the murderer. That person would have a day to hatch the heinous end of one of the guests by separating them from the crowd and saying, ‘You’re the corpse.’ After the fatal words were uttered, the murderer would sound a primitive gong and turn the lights off at the main switch to symbolize the slaying. Darkness would last a minute or so before light and reason were restored in the form of a ‘mock trial’ with a ‘judge’ and a ‘prosecuting attorney’. All of the party would have the right to cross-examine witnesses, including the murderer. But now the real corpse of Charles Rankin has been discovered with a blade driven into his heart. Shock overwhelms the party as they gather in the library the next day to hear Alleyn’s words. He gives them strict instructions. No one is allowed to leave the grounds. ‘I think the Murder Game should be played out. I propose that we hold the trial precisely as it was planned. I shall play the part of prosecuting attorney…For the moment there will be no judge.’ He believes that playing the game will unravel the complexities of the crime and reveal its perpetrator. So the characters find themselves trapped inside a game inside a house until the murderer confesses.

When she arrived in England, Ngaio Marsh brought with her two chapters of a manuscript that she hoped would contain the genesis of the great New Zealand novel. She knew it was a literary challenge waiting to be taken up, and worked on it intermittently until London life lured her in a new creative direction. By the time she began her first detective novel, the genre was already well established. Its genesis was in Philadelphia in April 1841 when a young, impoverished editor named Edgar Allan Poe published an eerie tale called ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ in
Graham’s Magazine.
That year, Poe was invited
to head the magazine’s editorial staff on the condition that he controlled his drunken mood swings. Under his talented and more temperate stewardship,
became the world’s
first mass-circulation magazine, leaping in a few short months from…five thousand readers to an unprecedented forty thousand’. Poe’s detective stories developed in the crucible of professional success and modest acclaim. The three tales he wrote with the Chevalier Auguste Dupin as his sleuth became a blueprint for the genre’s evolution, and Dupin was a watershed character in Poe’s writing because he represented the victory of the rational mind over Poe’s usual theme of terror. Dupin’s intellect was fired by the fusion of opposites that Poe most admired: he was at once a visionary poet and a rational logician.

The aristocratic and eccentric Auguste Dupin was introduced by an anonymous narrator who became his sycophantic sidekick. This unequal relationship set the pattern of the brilliantly omniscient detective dazzling his obtuse, slow-witted friend, who is the storyteller. Other conventions were established, such as the plodding constabulary who overlook all but the most obvious clues, the locked-room mystery, the innocent cast under suspicion, the elucidation of the criminal mind by appreciating the murderer’s circumstances and motives, and the jaw-dropping dénouement that leaves everyone but the detective amazed. After solving the Rue Morgue murders, where, in a locked room, a corpse is discovered ‘thrust head downward up a chimney’, and an old woman’s body is found frightfully mutilated, the subsequent crimes that perplex Auguste Dupin are smaller. In ‘The Purloined Letter’ he recovers stolen correspondence, and in ‘The Mystery of Marie Rogê’ he establishes the fate of a murdered girl.

Poe set his detective stories in Paris, which encapsulated the Gothic and romantic traditions that inspired his work. Despite the notoriety that writing brought him, he remained a literary outsider in the United States, criticized for the blackness of his stories and for their European influence. He wrote out of ambition, but also to support his young wife, Virginia Clemm, who was dying of tuberculosis. She was his cousin, whom he had married when she was 13 years old. Stricken by grief and financial worry after her death, the destitute Poe drank heavily before dying prematurely in 1849. Ironically, when his own survival depended on the reason he so liberally instilled in Auguste Dupin, the archetypal sleuth vanished from his pages.

The Paris streets that stirred Poe’s imagination also contained the germ of his great detective. In 1829, the autobiography of retired policeman Franç is
Eugèe Vidocq appeared on the city’s bookstalls. He was a former criminal who began his career as a police informant in prison. This was not unusual: ex-cons were employed as detectives by La Sûreté Nationale, which began in 1812, by London’s Bow Street Runners and by Scotland Yard following its founding in 1829.
After 18 years
working for the Sûreté, the 52-year-old Vidocq published his ghost-written four-volume
containing a multitude of colourful anecdotes about the apprehension of an alleged 20,000 criminals. This fabulous concoction of fact and fiction became Poe’s inspiration.

But Dupin was not a professional policeman like Vidocq: he was an amateur detective assisting local law enforcement with his powers of observation and logic. One of the earliest fictional detectives on the police payroll was created by Frenchman émile Gaboriau who started out, in 1853, by writing halfpenny thrillers that he published in daily instalments to satisfy a burgeoning market. Urban, industrialized life demanded the rudiments of education from an increasing proportion of the population. For the enterprising Gaboriau, this translated into a sizeable readership hungry for serialized escape from the drudgery of everyday life. Gaboriau’s Monsieur Lecoq (who appeared in his first novel in 1866) helped to rehabilitate the public image of the police detective by removing some of its criminal taint. His writing introduced the layered plot with its complex twists, turns and unexpected dénouements.

Across the Channel, Gaboriau’s influence on the development of detective fiction was substantial. Although his stories lacked the monumental staying power of Poe’s, they could be found on the bookshelves of such great English masters as Wilkie Collins and Arthur Conan Doyle.
In fact, crime writer
and critic Julian Symons believes Collins’s superbly crafted
The Moonstone
may have been influenced by the Frenchman’s three earliest crime stories,
L’Affaire Lerouge, Le Crime d’Orcival
Le Dossier No. 113.
The Moonstone
was the first major detective novel published in English, the laurels for the first English detective go to Collins’s colleague and close friend Charles Dickens, who created the ineffable Inspector Bucket of
Bleak House
in 1853. Like Poe and Gaboriau, Collins and Dickens responded to popular demand for spellbinding, affordable literature by serializing their work. And Dickens demonstrated his remarkable foresight not only for writing classics but for publishing them, when, as editor of the
All the Year Round
magazine, he serialized
The Moonstone.
The episodes began appearing early in 1868 and the three-volume novel was published in July.
The Moonstone
was innovative because it made detection central to a story conceived
on an epic scale. Immediate critical response to the book was subdued, but posterity has judged it differently. ‘
Taking everything into consideration
’, wrote Dorothy Sayers in her introduction to
The Omnibus of Crime, ‘The Moonstone
is probably the very finest detective story ever written.’

Gaboriau was the inspiration for the 19th century’s best-selling crime novel,
The Mystery of a Hansom Cab,
written by New Zealander Fergus Hume. It was his first novel. ‘
I tried to get it published
, but every one to whom I offered it refused to even look at the manuscript on the ground that no Colonial could write anything worth reading.’ Five thousand copies of the book were published at the author’s expense in Melbourne in 1886; subsequently an estimated million copies have sold around the world. Hume moved to England and continued writing detective novels for more than 30 years, but never with the same blockbuster success.

The maturity of the genre came in a prolific golden age of short stories by Arthur Conan Doyle. Empty waiting rooms and a threatened medical practice inspired the Scotsman to begin writing about a super-sleuth based on the special deductive skills of consulting surgeon Dr Joseph Bell, at the Edinburgh Infirmary where he trained. Sherlock Holmes was given life in
A Study in Scarlet
in 1887. Over 40 years, through 56 short stories and four novels, he would become the world’s greatest, and arguably most eccentric, detective. He was a cocaine addict, prone to ‘scraping away’ at his violin, and to prolonged periods lying prostrate on the couch in fits of depression. He was an alter ego to his creator, the huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ arch-philistine Conan Doyle, and an anathema to most conservative Victorians, yet his power to capture the popular imagination was phenomenal. His pyrotechnic displays of detection won him cult-hero status.

Conan Doyle’s synthesis of existing approaches was superb. He adopted Poe and Gaboriau’s admiring narrator, creating his own faithful retainer, Dr John H. Watson. He eschewed the terror of Poe’s Gothic tales, but made high art of his conventions. His sleuth, an upper-class egotist like Auguste Dupin, was emotionally stilted, faintly misogynistic (if not misanthropic), and an amateur rather than a professional detective. He was an urban dweller living in a sleuthing
with his narrator. He observed the smallest clues, developed a psychological profile of the perpetrator, and drew on an awe-inspiring breadth of empirical knowledge. If Poe’s Dupin gave shape to Sherlock Holmes, then the complex twists and turns of Gaboriau’s stories suggested Conan Doyle’s consummate puzzle plots. He remains one of the greatest and most original
exponents of the intricately woven whodunit. With flair, he fashioned the conventions of the guessing game between writer and reader into rules. The diverse settings for his multifarious plots gave weight to the words of Sherlock Holmes in ‘The Adventure of the Copper Beeches’: ‘
It is my belief, Watson
, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.’ Crime could be close at hand; its location was in the complexities of human psychology.

BOOK: Ngaio Marsh Her Life in Crime
6.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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