Rain 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.
‘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, ‘Graham’s 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 Méoires, 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 and Le Dossier No. 113. Although 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 ménage 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.
Because public pressure foiled Conan Doyle’s attempt in 1893 to kill off Sherlock Holmes by pushing him and his nemesis Professor Moriarty over a waterfall, the sleuth lived much longer than his creator ever intended. In fact, the short-story form was in decline by 1927 when The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes brought this famous career to an end. Conan Doyle’s influence was immense, as was the part he played in a British-based literary lineage that included G. K. Chesterton, Edgar Wallace and others. In what could have been wasteland years between the two World Wars, the genre flourished, and, remarkably, the chief architects of this classical era of detective fiction were women.
On the surface the four Queens of Crime, as they became known, seemed to be conventional upper-class women with values rooted in the ‘smiling and beautiful countryside’ and lives untouched by their fetish subject, murder. But the conventions of the whodunit offered these very private women a perfect cover. When Agatha Christie introduced Hercule Poirot in The Mysterious Affair of Styles in 1920, she invested in the book little more of her private life than the knowledge of poisons she had gleaned from war work behind a hospital pharmacy counter in Torquay. There was even less of her in the wax-trimmed moustache-wearing, stout little Belgian with the egg-shaped head who became her dandified detective through 33 novels and 10 collections of short stories over more than 55 years. Death came easily to Agatha Christie, and Hercule Poirot irritated her intensely. She would have killed him off earlier, but he was the heir to Sherlock Holmes, a small man who became a superman in the public’s imagination.
Hercule Poirot may sometimes have hovered perilously between cardboard cut-out and eccentric Holmesian cliché, but Christie transcended his weaknesses by constructing fabulously intricate problem plots. She was mathematical in her plotting, but also deceptive, and her killer instinct left no one exempt. In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which catapulted her into prominence in 1926, she treacherously breached detective etiquette by making the trusted narrator the murderer. This violation only enhanced her profile, beginning her reign as one of the world’s greatest detective writers. Interestingly, her stories were local and almost over-brewed in their Englishness. They were set typically in rural English villages, like the fictional St Mary Mead, the home of Christie’s other iconic sleuth, Miss Jane Marple. This was a world at risk from the emerging economies of the 20th century, but in the 1920s and 1930s a habitat still existed for the country squire, his family, servants and forelock-tugging gardeners and tradesmen. This was where the privileged Christie lived, and it was familiar to, or at least a desirable fantasy for, many of her readers. Miss Marple made her appearance in the midst of this cosy ordinariness, knitting and gossiping her way through the solution to her first Murder at the Vicarage in 1930. This elderly, mystery-solving spinster began as a bloodless archaism, severe, blue-eyed, frail and wearing a black lace cap and mittens, but she would update herself through 12 novels, becoming, warmer, wittier and more human. No other author has given so much snooping talent to a female figure of such advanced years, and created such a charismatic character.
Agatha Christie’s writing followed the strict detective novel formula, with a tightly structured beginning, a middle that explored the possibilities of the plot, and an end that neatly tied everything up. This rigid form gave her absolute control. But in 1926 her own life was less conveniently scripted. In the wake of her much-loved mother’s death and her dashing military husband’s elopement with one of her acquaintances, she disappeared. Her car was found mysteriously abandoned in a chalk pit. She would be discovered 10 days later, at a Harrogate spa, checked into the hotel under the surname of her husband’s mistress, Nancy Neele. The English press at the time accused her of orchestrating the event to promote sales of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, her first book published by Collins. Although she began a new life with archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan, whom she married in 1930, the events surrounding her separation and divorce from Archibald Christie remained a mystery. Her autobiography describes the incident in terms of a mental breakdown or fugue, which seems a likely explanation for the disappearance of the intensely publicity-shy author. But publicity it did generate. The civilian response to police calls to mount a nationwide manhunt was almost unprecedented. Among the hundreds who searched for Agatha Christie was a young woman called Dorothy Sayers.
In 1923, Whose Body? introduced Sayers’ foppish, monocle-wearing Lord Peter Wimsey. Operating as an amateur detective with friendly Inspector Charles Parker of Scotland Yard and manservant Bunter, Wimsey would work out whodunit and how in 11 novels and 21 short stories. There was much of Dorothy Sayers in the make-up, or rather make-believe, of her detective, and this is probably why she fell so famously in love with him. He was a projection of her fantasies. Wimsey was hugely rich and it gave her pleasure to spend his money for him. ‘When I was dissatisfied with my single unfurnished room, I took a luxurious flat for him in Piccadilly,’ she wrote in 1936. ‘When my cheap rug got a hole in it, I ordered him an Aubusson carpet. When I had no money to pay my bus fare I presented him with a Daimler Double Six…and when I felt dull I let him drive it.’
Wimsey began almost as a figure of farce, a caricature in his snobbish, over-mannered elegance, but he would evolve into an admirable man. He and Bunter were inspired in part by humorist and writer P.G. Wodehouse’s bungling Bertie Wooster and gentleman’s gentleman, Jeeves. But Sayers put existing models of the detective under a magnifying glass. Where his predecessors were mostly upper-class gentlemen, Wimsey was a blue-blooded aristocrat, the second son of the 15th Duke of Denver. He was educated at Eton, taking his degree, as Sayers had, at Oxford, where he received a First in history. His breeding was impeccable and his eccentricities refined to a high art. He was a talented musician, a collector of ancient books, and a connoisseur of fine wines, food, fashion and fast cars. Even his athletic prowess was consummate. At university he played cricket for Oxford, and when in sleuthing mode he dangled effortlessly from ropes off buildings. Only in visualizing his appearance did Sayers show restraint. Perhaps he could be called nondescript with his tow-coloured hair, beak-like nose and modest stature.
Wimsey’s life was vastly different from that of his creator. Dorothy Sayers’ first two detective novels were written during a difficult period. In 1921 she became infatuated with writer-journalist John Cournos, a man not prepared to return her love. She rebounded into an even less appropriate match with motorcar enthusiast Bill White, who, after a brief fling, left her pregnant and unmarried. Although she was a modern woman earning her living as a copywriter for Benson’s Advertising Agency, she was also a conservative and ultimately devout High Church Anglican. She was the only child of older parents. Her father had been the chaplain of Christ Church, Oxford, and headmaster of the choir school. She felt unable to tell her parents, in their 70s, about the arrival of their grandson, John Anthony, in 1924. As a result she kept the baby secret, fostering him with her cousin Ivy Shrimpton. Her relationships with Cournos and White were never made public, and neither was the fact that she had an illegitimate son. Even when she wed older Fleet Street journalist Mac Fleming in 1926, she lived a double life divided between her flat in London and country home in Witham. Mac, who left paid work because of illness soon after they married, was part of her provincial life and many of her London friends never knew he existed.
Unlike Agatha Christie, Sayers created her sleuth to pay the bills, and the same was true for another of the reigning Queens of Crime, Margery Allingham. Younger than her two co-rulers, and something of a prodigy, she came from a working literary family of writer-journalists and editors. She was eight when her first story was published in her aunt’s magazine; her first novel, Blackkerchief Dick, came out in 1923 when she was 19. The White Cottage Mystery, her first story with a detective theme, was serialized in the Daily Express before it was produced as a novel in 1927, but it was not until The Crime at Black Dudley was published in 1929 that she had her first real success. It was in this book that she introduced her enigmatic Albert Campion. He began as a relatively minor figure, but when he captured the imagination and endorsement of her American publishers he was duly plucked from the chorus to become a star. There is more than a whiff of Wimsey and Wooster in Campion’s demeanour, and he may have been created as a spoof of the archetypal silly-ass sleuth. His pedigree was the most illustrious yet, because of his connection to royalty, although his exact relationship to the throne was never made specific. In fact, very little about this slippery snoop’s identity was specific. He had an assumed name, and there were other aliases. He was even physically ambiguous. His voice was described as idiotic and effete. A wiry albino-blond with buckteeth, he wore horn-rimmed spectacles and had a blank, unintelligent stare, but he was also heralded as a woman magnet.
Campion began as a modish young man-about-town with no serious intentions, but this was a smokescreen. In reality he moved easily between nobility and the criminal underworld to solve his crimes. Although a freelance government agent, and therefore seemingly on the right side of the law, his underworld connections were as close as his lugubrious valet, Magersfontein Lugg, who appeared first in Mystery Mile, in 1930. Lugg was a reformed cat burglar and borstal jail-bird, with a rich cockney accent and amusing turn of phrase. He would become the absent-minded Campion’s minder and nanny. Allingham wrote another 17 novels and 20 short stories with Campion as her hero-sleuth. Like Wimsey, he developed into a more complex and compelling figure as the novels progressed. Her plots improved along with her characters, but their strength remained in the element of risk rather than the intellectual puzzle plot. She created tension by evoking a sense of fear and foreboding that could be as disturbing as violence. Witchcraft and the occult were the themes in a number of plots. Her own connections to spiritualism began in her youth when she said Blackkerchief Dick was communicated to her at a séance. In her later years she was drawn to religion, studying sorcery and black magic with an interest intensified by the occult’s long history in her local area.
Margery Allingham hoped she might make a career for herself on the stage. In 1920, she began an acting course at London’s Regent Street Polytechnic. Speech therapy and drama classes cured her childhood stutter, but acting was not the profession for this shy woman who found speaking in public an ordeal. The theatre remained a lifelong passion, and introduced her to Philip Youngman Carter. The pair had their first date at The Old Vic theatre in London. Together they attended countless stage productions, became secretly engaged in 1922, and married in 1928. A love of the theatre linked all the Queens of Crime, but none loved it more than Ngaio Marsh, the last to join this criminal quartet. She may well have sat in the same West End productions as Margery Allingham, but this was not all they shared. Allingham’s The Crime at Black Dudley bears the closest fingerprint to Ngaio Marsh’s A Man Lay Dead. Before she began her murderous weekend’s writing, Ngaio had been reading a detective novel from the local lending library. Later she remembered that it may have been an Agatha Christie or a Dorothy Sayers, but it was probably the residue of Margery Allingham’s plot that stayed in her mind as she wrote.
In The Crime at Black Dudley, a homicide explodes the gaiety of a weekend party in a musty-dusty manor house in remote coastal Suffolk. After dinner, a bejewelled 15th-century Italian dagger is used in a ritual game that has ancient associations with the house. In a blackened room, the blade is passed between guests in a frenzied rite that combines the anxiety of a pass-the-parcel bomb with the sensory deprivation of blind-man’s-buff. When light is restored, the host’s invalid uncle, Colonel Coombe, is found murdered and an important document is missing from his papers; the house guests are held hostage by a criminal gang seeking the document’s return. It is pathologist Dr George Abbershaw who uncovers the killer, assisted by the mysterious Albert Campion. Abbershaw was almost certainly intended to be Allingham’s detective, but he was upstaged by the super-sleuth-spoof, Campion.
Although Ngaio and Allingham have similar plots, their execution is quite different. With each sinister ingredient, Allingham twists the tension of her story tighter. Her mansion is a rotting labyrinth of antique rooms and corridors connected by an ancient network of rat-infested secret passageways. Guests vanish through panelled walls, reappear behind fireplaces and are beaten up by Teutonic henchmen. Her host is a mask-wearing criminal mastermind, and his staff and associates some of Europe’s most villainous thugs. The situation becomes combustible and burn the house nearly does, with the guests locked in an upper chamber. Salvation comes when their desperate choruses of ‘view-halloo’ attract the Monewdon Hunt. Ngaio’s treatment, by comparison, is blander but more believable. Her suspense hinges on whodunit and how. Already her special talent for visualizing scenes is evident, as is her superb sense of dramatic timing.
In years to come Ngaio Marsh would cringe at the thought of her first novel, with its barely plausible storyline, shallow characterization and confined setting, but it was her entrée to crime fiction writing. In fact, both A Man Lay Dead and The Crime at Black Dudley exemplify the cosy detective novel form perfectly. Claustrophobic in every way, they unfold with a small group of characters, in a single main setting, over a short period of time. The exclusion of the outside world allows the writer to create a controlled environment where clues, red herrings, victims, innocents and villains can be paraded before the reader free of contamination. There can be no loose ends and no escapes. The isolated manor house is a favourite setting, but equally it could be a village, a train, a boat, a hospital, a theatre, or any discrete space that brings a hand-picked group of eccentrics together and locks the door. The cosy comes with a property box of stock characters. There is the prominent family with its multiple tensions, the vamp, the vicar, the rake, the student, the professor, the spinster, the young poseur, the doctor, the adventurer, the foreigner, the writer, the untouched young woman, and, of course, the murderer. For murder it mostly is, because the participants play for the highest stakes: the death penalty. Cosy plots are convoluted, so the reader is presented with a multiplicity of possible scenarios, each stopping at a dead end until the detective leads the way. The detective enters this amphitheatre of anxiety in a sanctified role to restore the balance of good over evil. He or she is neither judge nor executioner but high priest of order, exposing the wrongdoer, who is sacrificed to reaffirm society’s rules. In 1942, writer and critic Nicholas Blake described the detective as ‘the Fairy Godmother of the twentieth century folk-myth’. Certainly this figure played a magical part in one of the century’s favourite bedtime stories.
‘I thought it would be fun to create someone who hadn’t got tickets tied to him,’ explained Ngaio Marsh in a 1978 radio interview for the BBC. She was talking about the genesis of her detective, Roderick Alleyn. She had visited Scotland and while staying with friends selected the popular Scottish name Roderick; and not long before she began writing she went to Dulwich College where her father had gone to school, and chose the surname of its founder, Elizabethan actor Edward Alleyn. So her detective was christened before he was born. His character was gestating in her mind as she tinkered with the coals in her London grate. She was thinking of a more ordinary man than the set of silly-assed sleuths who tweaked waxed moustaches, repositioned monocles or stared blankly over buckteeth. She wanted to create a believable professional policeman who could move comfortably between the lower echelons and upper-class circles where many of her stories would be set. He was to be an ‘attractive, civilised man,’ the kind, she later wrote, ‘with whom it would be pleasant to talk but much less pleasant to fall out’. So Alleyn was born, ‘tall and thin with an accidental elegance about him and a fastidiousness’. His hair is dark, his eyes are grey ‘with corners that turned down. They looked as if they would smile easily, but his mouth didn’t.’ After a long look at her first detective, Sir Hubert Handesley’s niece, Angela North, decides Alleyn is ‘the sort they knew would “do” for house-parties’. He is the younger son of a landed family in Buckinghamshire, has been educated at Eton, employed briefly by the Foreign Office, and now works for the Yard. His brother is a baronet in the diplomatic corps, and his mother, Lady Alleyn of Danes Lodge, Bossicote, breeds Alsa tians. His background is impeccable rather than impossible, and his worst habit is his irritating tendency to make banal comments and facetious jokes.
Like his sleuthing peers, Alleyn would mature, but not as much because he began more plausibly. There would be excursions abroad, but his natural habitat would remain the English hothouse cosy where traditional values were just a murder away from being restored. The anarchy of war, the devastation of pandemic, the General Strike of 1926, the Great Depression, and the rise of Communism and Fascism with their catastrophic episodes of genocide never properly enter his cloistered world where a single death can still be utterly shocking.
Explaining the extraordinary demand for the detective novel, Margery Allingham wrote: ‘When the moralists cite the modern murder mystery as evidence of an unnatural love of violence in a decadent age, I wonder if it is nothing of the sort, but rather a sign of a popular instinct for order and form in a period of sudden and chaotic change […] There is something deeply healthy in the implication that to deprive a human being of his life is not only the most dreadful thing one can do to him, but also that it matters to the rest of us.’ Faced with the flux of a rapidly changing world, readers sought intellectual escape in problem plots where sanitized death teased the minds of anyone from a housewife to a judge. While global war and economic slump eroded the class system and beat at the bastions of the family manor house, the detective novel offered fictional stability. Anybody with a stake in the restoration of traditional order was a potential reader. The detective novel portrayed a world of proscriptive hierarchies and reassuring ritual. It assumed a reasoned universe based on polarities of right and wrong where anarchy occasionally erupted but normality was always restored. And no one could be a more chivalrous representative of the status quo than that ‘perfect specimen of English manhood’, Roderick Alleyn.
As an orderly man in an ordered form, he required little personal revelation from Ngaio Marsh. Like the other Queens of Crime, Ngaio shunned uncomfortable publicity. She seemed largely conformist, from a conservative background, writing in an era when women were expected to behave conventionally. The crime novel kept up appearances by preserving her from the necessity of exploring difficult feelings. The genre exposed to public scrutiny her intellect and literary skills rather than her emotions. Ngaio was the most secretive of this very self-protective group. As crime novelist commentator Jessica Mann writes, ‘she exemplifies in its most extreme form the reticence of the crime novelist…[she] never wrote anything which touched her emotions more deeply’ and ‘one senses withdrawal’.
Ngaio was the only Antipodean Crime Queen, and although she often left New Zealand’s parochial fish bowl, she never escaped it. This made her, as she described it, ‘a looker on in England’. But she was also something of an Anglophile outsider at home. Colonization creates cultural refugees and Ngaio was one of these, a wanderer between worlds, never belonging completely to any place or culture. But displacement does not explain the intensity of her need for privacy. In 32 novels written over nearly 50 years, she exposed countless villains, but never herself. She was a doyenne of concealment, knowing exactly what evidence was incriminating and who would point the finger. There are, however, clues to understanding this complex and elusive woman. Ngaio felt strong emotions. ‘I guess I fell in love with them,’ she said of the aristocratic family she stayed with in Britain, and love is as good a place as any to begin a mystery.
Ngaio’s rusty freighter-cum-passenger ship steamed up the Thames, docking at Tilbury in the early summer of 1928. She was ecstatic about her first visit to England. ‘We were bewilderingly gay,’ she remembered, ‘I got the tag end of a very ravished but very wonderful 1920s in London.’ She went immediately to stay with her friends Helen and Tahu Rhodes, and their burgeoning family of five children. On her arrival at their magnificent Georgian mansion, Ngaio was greeted by a joke ‘For Sale on Easy Terms’ sign, which set the tone of her stay. Ngaio found the Rhodes family’s theatricality, their irrepressible enthusiasm for practical jokes, for putting on costumes, for making up and acting up, irresistible. She would live with them on and off while in England; first at Alderbourne Manor near Gerrards Cross in Buckinghamshire, and later in London.
This would become a méage à trois of sorts, held together by the infatuation of the two women. Helen, known as Nelly, was the eldest daughter of Lord Plunket, who had been Governor of New Zealand from 1904 to 1910. In 1916, she married her handsome soldier husband, Captain Tahu Rhodes, at an English church packed with wounded soldiers who had been driven to the service in Red Cross vehicles from the New Zealand hospital at Walton-on-Thames.
The pattern of Ngaio’s weekend stays with the couple had begun when they returned to New Zealand at the end of the First World War. Tahu Rhodes, a childhood friend, owned Meadowbank, a large sheep station at Ellesmere, about 30 kilometres south-east of her hometown of Christchurch. Through her fund-raising activities in the theatre, Ngaio picked up the threads of her acquaintance with Tahu and was introduced to his wife, Nelly. The women’s friendship became lifelong and binding.
In New Zealand, Ngaio had wandered listlessly from one touring theatre production to another, searching for something permanent and sustaining. She had acted in, written and directed plays; she had been to art school and produced paintings for exhibitions; she had written articles for the Sun newspaper. But after the Rhodeses’ return to England in 1927, her enthusiasm for bit-jobs diminished in direct proportion to her desire to travel ‘Home’. Much more than a literal home, England was for her a cultural pantheon presided over by her giant of literary gods, William Shakespeare. When it came, the invitation from the Rhodeses burst like a blaze of fireworks across a night sky. She was rapturous. Her parents were the only tug on her emotions. However, her doting bank-clerk father, Henry Marsh, and his economizing wife, Rose, magnanimously scrambled to pay their only child’s passage to England. It meant a more spartan life than usual, but the opportunity for Ngaio to travel and stay with such illustrious friends abroad was impossible to miss.
Alderbourne, with its vast number of rooms and workforce—which included a butler, a footman, a full domestic staff, plus a nanny and a lady’s maid—was a shock for Ngaio. The Rhodes family had returned to England to economize. They had found their big house, large staff and lavish life of weekend parties unsustainable in New Zealand. To Ngaio, however, Alderbourne Manor seemed luxurious. She waited for the ominous day when the Rhodes family ‘bandwagon’, as she called it, with its English ‘rebore’ and fresh ‘coat of paint’, lurched into another period of desperate insolvency. In the meantime, she took her seat.
A photograph taken on a Rhodes family holiday in Kent shows the easy comfort of the family group and their coterie of perpetual guests. Four high-spirited children, wearing swimsuits, sit in the front row with a favourite dog, while another is carried piggyback. Behind them are the adults, in soft suits that pull and pucker. On the far right, slightly apart, stands Tahu Rhodes. He was a captain in the Grenadier Guards, and there is still a trace of formality in the slicked-back black hair, prominent moustache and heavy-featured, swarthy good looks. Beside him is the crop-haired, trouser-clad, boyish figure of Ngaio. She was nearly 6 feet (1.8 metres) tall, and even in her 30s she carried the imprint of youth and a touch of the awkward teenager in her lanky stature. She was striking, with strong rather than conventionally beautiful features, a prominent nose, dark close-set eyes and tightly wavy dark hair. Toppy Blundell Hawkes stands open-faced and smiling between Ngaio and Nelly. He was a good-natured English farm cadet who became a favourite after staying with the Rhodes family in New Zealand. Nelly is squat and somewhat plain, but the warmth of her personality is evident in her face, which beams broadly. A 1920s hat is pulled down tightly on her head, and she is wearing a full-length, flecked dress-suit, which is comfortable rather than elegant. What is evident in the photograph is their delight at being together on holiday.
Ngaio joined the Society of Authors, and at Alderbourne Manor, in the midst of a noisy household of children, wrote syndicated accounts of her travels for newspapers in New Zealand. She hoped journalism would make her more independent of her parents’ finances. The first of many articles, under the pen name ‘A New Canterbury Pilgrim’, was published in the Christchurch Press on 1 September 1928. She began by describing her departure from New Zealand. ‘I know of no experience that compares with the adventure of setting out on one’s travels…for me, at least, the office of Thomas Cook and Son, Christchurch, will always be the enchanted parlour whose doors open straight into Wonderland.’ Like many creative colonial women of her generation, Ngaio felt travelling to Britain and Europe was like slipping into a magical parallel universe. New Zealand offered few opportunities in writing, art or the theatre, and, for women particularly, these were isolating, often desperate pursuits. Even after the First World War, remnants of Victorian provincialism hung like a miasma over cities such as Christchurch. Expatriate Australian artist and writer Stella Bowen described Christchurch’s sister city Adelaide as ‘a queer little backwater of intellectual timidity’ which, ‘isolated by three immense oceans…lies…prettyish, banal, and filled to the brim with an anguish of boredom’. This was what Ngaio felt she was leaving. It was also a chance to escape the confines of her relationship with her parents, to become independent—an adult even—and define herself as someone new.
Her first stop on the long sea voyage, which would take nearly eight weeks, was Sydney, where she witnessed a half-span of the harbour bridge going up. She saw a production of Henry VIII put on in Newton by her old actor-manager friend Allan Wilkie, and went to the city’s ‘grandiloquent’ state gallery which stands on a hill flanked by giant statues of snorting steeds bearing symbolic figures of ‘war and peace’. In the English section of the gallery, she was taken by the work of Impressionist Laura Knight, and in the Australian, by the Post-Impressionist Margaret Preston. ‘They are brilliantly painted,’ she wrote of Preston’s still-lifes, ‘they seem to reveal the very spirit of flowers without a touch of over-representation or sentimentality. Her sense of pattern is…inspiring.’ In the colonies Ngaio’s taste in art was modern, and her discussion of Preston perceptive, but in European centres that had wrestled with Cubist deconstruction, Dada nihilism and the psychosis of Surrealism, it was traditional. Her final visit was to the new Cabaret-Romanos, where she found heterogeneous humanity dancing cheek-to-cheek to the ‘muted “Blues” of the best Jazz in Sydney’.
In Hobart, she shuddered at photographs of the ‘dreadful instruments’ of penal correction used in the former convict prison and noted the sad demise of Aboriginal culture in the face of English settlement. She found Melbourne cooler and more decorous than hot-blooded, sun-baked Sydney. Here she again visited the state gallery, noting the work of late 19th-century ‘moderns’ like idiosyncratic Symbolist Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, and the painting of French and English Impressionists such as Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Frank Brangwyn, John Singer Sargent and Sir William Orpen. Again, her taste was conservative. The highlight of her stay was a lavish production, by the Melba-Williamson Grand Opera Company, of Puccini’s unfinished Turandot. ‘The audience at the opera in Melbourne is a very festive one and the gorgeous theatre coats made a brave show against the florid brilliance of the gilt walls. Many of the men wore tails and white ties.’ Ngaio relished the rituals of class and culture and felt it gave the event dignity. She was naturally attracted to the theatrical, even camp accessories of upper-crust society, and this fascination lasted. Her observation of aristocratic manners was acute, and her belief in them shifted from born-again conviction to good-humoured scepticism.
The liver-coloured, coal-burning Balranald was making a last long sea voyage to the wreckers’ yard, and Ngaio’s berth was cramped, yet shipboard life appealed to her. She eagerly participated in deck games and dressing up for performances and parties, and delighted in the company of the other passengers. Already Ngaio was fascinated by the pursuit of people-watching, especially in a confined space. ‘I have always had a vague and ill-informed interest in crowd-psychology, and never was there a better opportunity of studying it.’ She could watch people with impunity—‘Australians who wanted to see the world, Americans who have seen it and insisted on telling you about it, Swedish, Greek, Armenians and Italian wanderers…South Africans’—and share her amusing observations with her Christchurch readers. It took three weeks to reach the coast of Africa, and by then much of the food on board was stale or bad. The water made people sick and, opening a folded slice of cold meat, she ‘found it encrusted with small shells’. Ngaio decided ‘to cut loose’ and eat in Durban.
She was enchanted by the city’s strangeness. ‘The first excitement we [Ngaio and a fellow passenger] encountered was a row of Zulu rickshaw men with their amazing head-dresses of quills, feathers, and horns, their fur tippets and painted legs.’ The rickshaw ride to the hotel through sunny streets that thronged with ‘Hindoos, Kaffirs, Zulus…white people…[and] beautiful Indian women in ample robes of vivid blue and scarlet and cerise’ was as colourful as it was exhilarating. On a hill, the driver drew himself onto the shafts of the rickshaw and ‘we free-wheeled at an alarming speed while he rang his cow bell at the crossings’. They recovered from their ordeal by drinking coffee on the loggia of the hotel ‘and looking on at the pageant of the streets’. Ngaio saw Sybil Thorndike, her husband Lewis Casson, and their small daughter in a revival of The Liars by Henry Arthur Jones, and in a packed Indian market she bought the food she had promised herself. For sixpence she filled a colossal basket with pineapples, oranges, pawpaws, succulent tangerines and gigantic grapefruit. Ngaio ached to paint the scene, with its bustle of humanity and kaleidoscope of costumes, produce, deeply shaded little shops and brilliant lengths of silk, but she had time only to take a photograph and make a quick sketch on the back of an envelope. She wrote about the market in her ‘Pilgrim’ article before she painted it. Increasingly she was capturing the world around her in words rather than paint, but she pictured it vividly with an artist’s eye.
Durban’s racism troubled her. She had qualms about taking a rickshaw ride, and described with contempt the treatment of a black man who ‘ran in front of three sullen-looking Dutch youths, who turned on him savagely’. She concluded: ‘I remember Mr J H Curle’s contention that it is the under-bred white who, at bedrock, is responsible for the “colour question”’, and this is what she believed. Ngaio was sensitive about race and culture. As a Pakeha in New Zealand, she had seen the plight of Maori in the face of colonization, and she felt for their loss of culture, language and land. She saw pathos in the position of the ‘aboriginals who have seen the coming of the English and the changing of their ways’. Ngaio was born a Victorian, her liberalism was flawed and limited, and her thinking sometimes straitjacketed by convention and class, but she despised racial prejudice. The final picture she painted of Durban was one that disturbed her. It was the fading image of ‘a grinning kaffir boy’ dancing on the wharf. He had made friends with children on the boat. ‘“He’s a nice nigger boy,” said a little girl. “He does what I tell him, ‘Dance boy’.” He danced and waved his arms obediently…till we slid away and the children lost interest in him.’
From Durban, the Balranald sailed in heavy seas down the coast of Africa to Cape Town, where Ngaio met Uncle Freddie, one of Henry Marsh’s six brothers. Their father, a tea broker in the days of clipper ships, had died suddenly leaving his widow in a small Georgian house near Epping with a family of 10 children to bring up. The sons, desperate for financial independence and opportunity left, England for Canada, South Africa and New Zealand, adventurers out to make their fortunes. ‘There seems to have been no thought of university or profession for any of them,’ Ngaio later wrote. ‘The Colonies, it was felt, were the thing.’
Henry learned Chinese at London University for a position in the Hong Kong-Shanghai Bank, but this plan was cut short by a bout of pleurisy and an invigorating year on the veldt of South Africa. A solution to his employment problem came from his father’s eldest brother, who was Governor of Hong Kong. While this uncle was staying in New Zealand, he secured the offer of a good position for his nephew with the Colonial Bank. When Henry arrived, however, the unthinkable happened: the bank crashed and he was forced to take a humble clerk’s job with the Bank of New Zealand. He remained in the same position for the rest of his life. Ngaio’s Uncle Freddie, now permanent secretary to the Governor-General’s Fund in Cape Town, was luckier. He and his family proudly escorted Ngaio around the sights of the city, which included the museum, the ancient colonial house of Koopmans-de Wet, the ‘old Curfew bell that…call [ed] the slaves in from their work’, and the ‘ill-tailored statue’ of former prime minister and colonizing magnate, Cecil Rhodes.
A sultry yellow sun beat unrelentingly down as they steamed along the Gold Coast. ‘When the land breeze gets up it fans us with the accumulated heat of all Africa,’ Ngaio wrote, ‘but tomorrow we turn away towards Las Palmas, and sail out of the tropics.’
When she finally reached the silver-grey misty seas of England she could hardly believe it. ‘Just before dawn the cabin steward made an isolated gesture. For the first time on the voyage he brought me a cup of tea. He said…the water had been filtered…I thanked him warmly and had drunk half the tea when I found the rest of the cup was full of a thick, viscid, grey silt.’
It was with a huge sense of relief and excitement that she met the Rhodes family on the wharf. They drove her through streets that were noisy monuments to history after the colonial outposts and cicada-serenaded towns she knew. She was infatuated. Her first excursions from Alderbourne Manor into London were dream-like. ‘There is the same fascination here,’ she wrote, ‘as there was in the brilliance and heat of the Indian market in Durban.’ One of the early stage shows she saw was Agatha Christie’s Alibi, which was a ‘detective drama, remarkable for the really brilliant acting of Mr Charles Laughton as M. Poirot’. She emerged afterwards onto warm summer-evening streets to see ‘men in their evening dress, not wearing over coats or hats…[looking] exotic and important’ and women with cloaks tied around their necks who seemed ‘to move as though they are walking across a stage’.
London was a wonderland above and below ground. She was thrilled by the thronging Strand, and by Trafalgar Square, where humming multitudes of people pushed past iconic stone buildings and vast public sculptures. She delighted in Piccadilly Circus, where scarlet buses and black taxis hurtled. ‘This, Londoners say, is the hub of the world, and it is here that I love to stand, my feet on London stones, in the very heart of that amazing labyrinth.’ She relished the experience of diving down moving stairways, travelling through ‘strangely scented warm tunnels’ and coming out on subterranean platforms, to take the tube. ‘As we gathered way, all these figures moved very slightly and spasmodically, for all the world like…masked jiggling puppets…As one does in the tubes, I sat idly speculating about my fellow travellers for three miles under the earth.’ Mesmerized by people and places, she was looking at the city with the eyes of an outsider and it set her imagination on fire.
Ngaio was with the Rhodeses only a matter of months before the ‘bandwagon’ carried her off to Monte Carlo. She watched in astonishment as the family planned to spend a windfall given to them by Nelly’s mother. Money worries hung over Alderbourne Manor, but Monte Carlo was chosen as an escape and a place where they could recover financially by making a fortune at the gaming tables. ‘A domestic roulette was put into instant use.’ They would take turns at spinning the wheel and record the patterns of numbers in order to devise a sensible and scientific system. Ngaio was sceptical. So, she suspected, were they. But they were having fun, and the fun was intoxicating. There were Nelly Rhodes, Ngaio, and Betty Cotterill, a student friend of Ngaio’s who also stayed for a while with the Rhodes family. The Channel was ‘grey and nasty and was covered with white horses’ when they left Dover, but the boat was intriguing. She could observe again: ‘Wondering about the nationality, private lives, and destinations of the people who are pouring up the wind-raked gangway on to the alarmingly small vessel that is to herd you all together.’ Ngaio enjoyed the drama of arriving in Calais, which was like ‘stepping on to the stage of an impromptu musical comedy’.
But it was the train beside the wharf that arrested her attention. It was ‘the famous Blue Train,’ she explained, ‘cherished by all weavers of detective fiction on the Continental scale’. Already she was thinking of murder on an overnight express. The Blue Train carried them south from austere Paris past fields of vines and ‘pointed ranks’ of black cypress trees, through hills and heat-baked yellow houses to the Riviera. ‘Monte Carlo is beautiful in a lavish carefree sort of way that rather took me aback,’ she recorded. From the balcony of their adjoining rooms they looked down on a ‘cheerful little street’. Subdued sounds of horses’ hooves, church bells, motor horns ‘and the endless lisp of quiet voices’ drifted up in a muted haze of warmth and colour. The casino, by contrast, was a cacophony of Baroque flamboyance. Nude men supported shields; cornucopias spilled forth; voluptuous ‘larger-than-life ladies’ languished in pastoral landscapes. The colours were a muted confection of chocolate, ochre, ‘baby blues and pinks that have gone off’, and everything that could be gilded was. The extravagance of the roof and walls was an entrée to the hushed drama of the floor. ‘Roulette in extremis is a disease,’ announced Ngaio, after describing the many English habitués who came daily, their faces distorted by alcohol and drugs. She savoured the detail of hawk-like men and women who sat expressionless, watching their fortunes dance up and down on the back of an ivory ball.
‘I usually start with a group of people,’ Ngaio told a radio interviewer, explaining how she began a book. ‘I get interested in a group of people…and think about them, their relationships…quite often, just start writing about them…Which of these people is capable of a crime of violence?…Under what circumstances would they be likely to commit it?’
At Monte Carlo, Ngaio was already looking for potential suspects.
She is over middle-age and…enormous. Her face, heavily enamelled, dangles in pockets from the bones of her skull. At three in the afternoon, when I first saw her, she was dressed in jonquil-coloured satin trimmed with marabou, and on her head was a golden cap covered in sparkling diamanté and garnished with an osprey about two feet high. In her claws she carried stacks of mills plaques worth more than £8-each, and in a few minutes she had trebled them…she gathered up her golden robes and swept over to the baccarrat [sic] table where she very quickly lost it all.
Ngaio’s party nicknamed this ‘enormous’ woman’s male counterpart ‘Dolly’, because he had minute hands and feet, a white moustache that looked as though it was stuck on with glue, and was ‘rigidly tailored and tight-waisted to such a degree that he could only move in little mechanical jerks’.
There was also a third sex at the tables that was more memorable than Ngaio was prepared to admit to ‘Pilgrim’ readers in 1928. It was not until she recalled the event in her autobiography Black Beech and Honey dew in 1966 that she mentioned a kind of woman that was ‘entirely new to me. The croupiers referred to the most dominant of them as “cette monsieur-dame”. She seemed to have quite a pleasant time of it, running her finger round inside her collar and settling her tie. She wore a sort of habit and was perhaps by [Christopher] Isherwood out of [Aldous] Huxley.’
The three women found the experience exhilarating. ‘We chose a table and hit Monte Carlo with our system.’ On the first evening they won so much that their purses bulged, but after a week they had lost nearly all their gains. A new tactic was devised. ‘We separated and we spent ages waiting for long runs on the even chances.’ They delighted in being together and free from restraints. In Christchurch, jealous rumours of an affair between Ngaio and Tahu Rhodes were whispered over teacups and behind theatre programmes, but it was the intimacy between Ngaio and Nelly Rhodes that was the glue.
Ngaio was captivated by her friend’s languid, aristocratic ease. Nelly was sure of her place, and had a liberty of spirit that came from privilege. Luxury was assumed, and delicacies ordered and served before balance books were totted. She was vague about practicalities and self-indulgent, but generous to a fault with others whether family coffers were full or empty. Ngaio’s childhood of genteel poverty was vastly different, and her social position more ambiguous. She could play the aristocrat, but she was not born one. For her the upper classes were a fiction, and travelling with Nelly to Monte Carlo was as full of wonder as waking up in Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall or Vile Bodies. What Ngaio brought to their relationship was her effervescent wit, her theatricality and the sheer energy of her excitement at being away. ‘[They] called us the “Ladies who Laugh”,’ she wrote, ‘presumably because we were unable to manage the correct expressionless stare at the tables, and on the occasion when we disastrously lost all our plaques laughed helplessly until we cried.’
Nelly Rhodes and Betty Cotterill lost, then recovered to gain a little at the end. Ngaio was more fortunate. ‘I suddenly found I’d won on 15 en plein and made enough to buy a coat and skirt.’ In reality, the outfit she bought with her winnings was reminiscent of the ‘cette monsieur-dame’ ensemble she later described in Black Beech. Whether Ngaio purchased this outfit to play fashionable-butch to Nelly’s languid-femme is impossible to know, because she destroyed any intimate record of their relationship. In her 20s Ngaio began burning correspondence that would elucidate any deeply felt emotional or physical nuance in her relationships. However, a photograph survives of Ngaio in her ‘cette monsieur-dame’ dress, suggesting not just modish chic but a theatrical delight in camping it up and testing the boundaries of cross-dressing.
They arrived back as white frosts were beginning to settle on the lawns at Alderbourne Manor. It was cold reality after the excitement of the Riviera, and the New Year of 1929 ushered in a bleak winter. ‘We are in the middle of the greatest frost England has known since eighteen something,’ Ngaio told readers. ‘The woods, the fields, the streams are all frozen and silent, and this morning I found a robin – silent too, and stiff in the grass where he had fallen out of the dead-cold sky.’ In London there were warnings in the press against skating on the Thames, which ‘hundreds of these hardy English’ did anyway, and in a quadrangle at Cambridge people flocked to see a frozen fountain. Ngaio ignored the biting cold and relished the sights: Westminster Abbey with its unearthly collection of sightless statues, and the Tower of London emerging from a ‘thin morning mist’ so that ‘a turret shone out quite warm and clear while the underlying structure slipped away into a blue haze’. She drove through Windsor Park at sunset and watched the long, late ‘rays of light touch trees and turf with the colours of heraldry’.
Later she visited art galleries and the spring exhibitions. Burlington House had a show of Dutch masters. She listened to a radio lecture about it by critic and art writer Roger Fry, and when she arrived to see the paintings the courtyard of Burlington House was ‘crammed with rich cars and the rooms were thronged with rich people’. It was the people rather than the art that fascinated her. Two ‘shrewdly critical Frenchwomen’ captured her attention, then the ‘modern’ art students. ‘They were very dirtily dressed in raincoats and trousers, and apparently little else. The prevailing fashion…[was to allow] their beards to grow to the “ten-days” lengths and then by a mysterious process, arresting their growth.’
She went in search of her roots, visiting the ancient Temple Church to find some trace of her great-grandfather who, according to family record, was the promised heir to a vast estate in Scotland. Unfortunately, the property owner (his uncle) died intestate, and the fortune was thrown into the Chancery. He was forced to take ‘some extremely humble job in the Middle Temple and my grandfather went to the choir school of the Temple Church’. Ngaio had no luck. ‘The verger, a grim man, had never heard of my ancestor.’
She lunched in style with the Rhodeses at such favourite places as the Ritz, the Savoy and the Carlton, and quietly on her own at little back-street establishments that were not always as cheap as she expected. For a time she even captured a job as a mannequin in a small, exclusive fashion shop off Bond Street. She had the perfect figure, but not an ideal temperament. She felt like a ‘richly turned-out automaton’. ‘[We] fell into lines, and, one by one, filed out of the door into the showroom, where we dropped into that curiously inhuman walk…we undulated backwards and forwards two or three times, stood in a half dozen modern attitudes, and strolled nonchalantly out of the door, the attendant nymphs fell upon us like automatic furies, switched dresses off…[and] on, and back we went into the queue again all silks and smiles.’
She was captivated, also, by the rituals of the Royal House, standing among crowds to watch the Trooping the Colour ceremony. She described the rich pageantry of uniforms, horses and foreign guests. ‘The Sultan of Zanzibar arrived close by us, stepping from his car in an astonishing blaze of jewels and exotic robes, while the immaculate English aide-de-camps stood, silk hat in hand to usher his Midnight Extravagance to his appointed seat.’
Three ‘Pilgrim’ articles, published in September, October and November 1929, recorded another magical trip to France. Again, Ngaio, Nelly Rhodes and Betty Cotterill escaped, taking a hotel on the Rue des Capucines in Paris. The summer was sizzling hot, and when their train reached the ‘environs of Paris the carriage next to ours actually caught fire’. Taxis flew past their hotel, tooting and adding thick vaporous exhaust fumes to the steaming boulevard. Ngaio sat out on the pavements, sipping coffee in a heat-induced dream state, while the city erupted around her. They visited Versailles and the Hall of Mirrors, which ‘is the biggest room I have ever seen’. They ate at restaurants and visited nightclubs like the famed Folies Bergère where ‘American voices, keyed up to their full siren pitch, cut the air into ribbons, French voices, with that soft, emphatic, rattle of words, burbled and eddied in a sort of conglomerate roar’. Paris was noisy, hot and expensive, but they loved it.
Once again, financial worries hit them when they returned to Alderbourne. In spite of their troubles, Ngaio helped Nelly Rhodes and her grandmother raise money for famine relief in India. Trestle tables were erected in the empty ballroom where they began painting. They decorated wooden cigarette boxes, tin wastepaper bins, trays, tables, lampshades, blotters and bowls, and made plaques with funny rhymes for bathroom and lavatory doors. Their ‘artsy-craftsy stall’ at the famine relief bazaar was a coup, realizing what seemed a small fortune.
It was not long before they decided that charity should begin at home. ‘I have become a shopkeeper in London town,’ Ngaio announced to her readers. ‘My partner and I have rented these minute premises for October, November and December.’ Their lock-up was in one of London’s most fashionable areas and they planned to sell gift items over the Christmas period. In London it snowed so much that immediately before Christmas Ngaio stayed at The Rembrandt hotel opposite the Brompton Oratory so she could open the shop early in the morning. Remarkably, when they cashed up their business they had made a profit, even after the Wall Street crash the previous October, and it was too tantalizing to stop. They decided to follow up their entrepreneurial success by establishing a shop at a more permanent address on Brompton Road, in Knightsbridge. They called themselves Touch and Go, after a Christchurch entertainment group with which they had been involved, and their business flourished. They then moved around the corner to Beauchamp Place, before shifting again into a bigger shop in the same street, where they focused more on furniture and interior design.
Their salubrious address was a honey trap for the upper classes. When Touch and Go was asked to design the interior of a pet salon, Ngaio was disgusted. ‘In respect of dogs I am a New Zealander’; at home, ‘sensible dogs and sporting dogs’ chased sheep or retrieved game birds. She found the dogs in Knightsbridge obscene and dirty. ‘No amount of shampooing and twiddling will make anything but asses of them…when they were not defecating on the doorstep they were shivering in their mistresses’ embrace.’ In spite of her Antipodean scruples, the job was finished and work flowed in.
Sadly, unlike Roger Fry’s avant-garde experimental Omega workshop in Fitzroy Square, which was supported by artists such as Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and Nina Hamnett, none of Touch and Go’s objects or interior designs have survived. Omega had foundered in 1919, because of the war. Touch and Go was self-consciously commercial chic by comparison, and perhaps because of this it survived the Depression. For 18 months or more Ngaio was involved with the shop and would leave reluctantly. Her recipe for success: ‘We became slightly less amateurish, never got on each other’s nerves…and added to the staff largely from our circle of friends.’
Among Ngaio’s circle of friends were many expatriate New Zealanders. A special person in this group was old childhood friend Dundas Walker, who had come to London years earlier in search of a professional acting career. Now that engagements had tailed off, he lived in genteel semi-retirement on a private income. With him, she visited print shops, junk shops, Portobello Road, and the bustling Caledonian market where hundreds of stallholders, ‘raked by a cold wind’, laid out their wares ‘on frost-chilled cobble-stones’. With her artist friend Rhona Haszard, she talked art-school gossip. Haszard had left New Zealand in 1926, under a cloud of scandal. In 1922, she had married talented student and part-time art school tutor Ronald McKenzie. It seemed an ideal match, but then, in 1925, she met Englishman and ex-Indian Army officer, Leslie Greener, who enrolled in her classes. Their affair began almost immediately, and halfway through the year, after a hasty divorce, the couple eloped and then married at a Waihi registry office in December 1925. They were now resident in Alexandria, but Haszard was in London for specialist back treatment. Her split with the well-liked McKenzie had polarized their friends, so she was grateful to find Ngaio still warm and friendly towards her.
Between the wars, the West End throbbed with a racy theatrical life. In the late 19th century there had been a clean-up of brothels and seedy gin dens in the area, and fashionable plays by playwrights like Oscar Wilde and Arthur Wing Pinero began to appear. The area became a playground for the middle and upper classes, and foreign visitors poured in to savour the West End experience. During the 1920s, luxurious theatres like the vast 5,900-seat Roxy were built to cope with the crowds. The West End’s leading performers—including Edith Evans, Cedric Hardwicke, Leon Quartermaine, Leslie Banks and Noël Coward—were international stars. Ngaio saw popular theatre with Nelly and Tahu Rhodes and Toppy Hawkes, and when she wanted something more discerning she went alone. ‘I saw a dramatization of Christopher Morley’s Thunder on the Left, and, later, the first of the Priestley “time” plays, Pirandello’s Henry IV with Ernest Milton and a French tragi-comedy called Beauty with Charles Laughton…The first Shakespeare that I saw in the West End was John Gielgud as a very young, petulant and smouldering Hamlet’, but it was Shakespeare at The Old Vic that she loved most. For her it had a raw immediacy that evoked Elizabethan theatre. The Old Vic audience included anyone from a policeman on the beat to ‘students, labourers, tough elderly women, nondescripts, deadbeats, and characters who might have made bombs in their spare time’. Above them hung a haze of blue cigarette smoke. They drank, chewed, gave unsolicited advice, and when an actor dried up they shouted the lines.
Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, directed by Tyrone Guthrie at the Westminster Theatre, had a huge impact on Ngaio. When it opened in Rome in 1921, it caused a riot. The bare stage was booed, and a fight broke out in the boxes. By the end of the decade audiences were more accustomed to its avant-gardism. Ngaio was captivated by the uncompromising set design and the dramatic treatment. The arbitrary nature of perception was an important theme in radical theatre following the First World War, and Pirandello’s play picked up this concept. In Six Characters, actors on stage rehearsing a Pirandello play are interrupted by a fictional family of characters who ‘demand that the drama of their own lives be performed and thus given a reality denied them as the mere figments of their author’s imagination’. They sketch out the scenes on stage for the actors to act. The supposedly ephemeral lives of the characters end up looking more convincing than those of the socially conditioned actors. The play challenges the relationship between art and life and the fictional roles played on stage and real roles played in life. The play would have continuing significance for Ngaio.
Theatre nights were late, and sometimes Ngaio, the Rhodeses and Hawkes were there to savour the ‘smell of the West End in the early morning. Hot Bread. Coffee. Freshly watered pavements…Roses.’ After the curtain went down, the crazed world of the fashionable club beckoned. They would usually go to more than one.’ “Uncles” was the smart night-club in those days and there one danced or inched at close quarters with poker-faced revellers…or sat and listened to Hutch [Leslie Hutchinson], a Negro entertainer whose popularity was supreme…Then there was the midnight floor show at the Savoy and a Tzigani band at the Hungaria.’ It was the Hungaria in New Regent Street that they liked best because an ecstatic energy erupted after midnight. They heard Emilio Colombo lead the band, and watched as violinists threw their bows in the air while a tiny troll-like man ‘went mad on the tzimbal’. The Hungaria was the habitat of high culture, of bohemians and the dissolute. It was the knife-edge of opposites Ngaio relished.
Sometimes the Prince of Wales was there and…alone, at a table just inside the door, sat a strange figure: an old, old man with a flower in his coat who looked as if he had been dehydrated like a specimen leaf and then rouged a little. No one ever accompanied him or paused at his table. He looked straight before him and at intervals raised his glass in a frog’s hand and touched his lips.
One night we asked the restaurateur who he was.
It is in the Hungaria that Nigel Bathgate meets his girlfriend Angela North and waits for Roderick Alleyn in A Man Lay Dead. Alleyn has allowed them to leave Frantock briefly to help him track down a secret Russian brotherhood. Men from Scotland Yard are hiding in an empty shop opposite the house where members of the fiendish ancient sect are meeting. The signal for them to strike will come from the Hungaria. Nigel has been told the secret password: it is the name of a murdered Pole.
His heart is racing. He is alone on the street as he turns in and orders a table at the back of the restaurant because he is not wearing evening dress. He sits down. His hand shakes visibly as he takes out his lighter. He smokes three cigarettes and fidgets anxiously. The band is playing ‘in the desultory manner that distinguishes the off hours in fashionable restaurants’. There are just three couples on the floor.
‘Do you want to order, sir?’ murmured Nigel’s waiter.
‘No thank you. I’ll wait until my—I’m waiting for someone—I’ll order when she comes.’
He lights another cigarette, wishes Angela were here, then loses himself in thoughts of Alleyn, and the agent, Sumiloff. Suddenly a voice from a solitary man at the next table cuts through his concentration. He wants to know when the Hungaria band will begin to play. Nigel is distracted and annoyed.
‘Not until midnight.’
‘That’s a long time,’ said the stranger, fretfully. ‘I’ve come on purpose to hear it. Very good, I’m told.’
‘Oh, frightfully,’ said Nigel unenthusiastically.
‘They tell me,’ continued his neighbour, ‘that some Russian is to sing here tonight. Lovely voice. He sings a thing called The Death of Boris.’
Nigel starts violently, then controls himself. He thinks he has been given the secret password. A thrill goes through him and he almost overflows with excitement. The information rushes out. He tells the stranger that the Russian brotherhood has been tricked into meeting at Alleyn’s house, and that Sumiloff is waiting there now. With that, the stranger is satisfied and abruptly calls to the waiter for the bill. A few minutes later he passes Angela, who is just arriving at the door. Nigel Bathgate will become Alleyn’s Watson, but not before he finds himself tied to a chair with a sharp blade being pushed under his fingernail. This is his apprenticeship, and he will learn the importance of passwords and getting them right.
Even though she was reading it in pencil from exercise books, Rose Marsh could hardly put A Man Lay Dead down. After her husband retired, by taking up ‘a number of secretaryships’ he had saved Rose’s fare to England. They could not afford for Henry to accompany her, so Rose arrived alone at Alderbourne in 1930, to find her daughter distracted from writing and acting by working in a shop during the day and living the high life at night. She bitterly regretted the waste of Ngaio’s talent and was not quiet about it. The situation gradually sorted itself out. The Rhodeses were tired of commuting and moved to London, where they took two big flats in Eaton Mansions, close to Eaton Square in Belgravia; some of the staff boarded out. Initially, Ngaio and her mother moved with them, but they stayed only long enough to find their own flat. In June or July, they shifted into a basement bedsit around the corner in Caroline Terrace. Nelly Rhodes was kind enough to make sure they were comfortably set up with excess furniture from the shop. Rose Marsh’s arrival put the brakes on one of the most exciting periods of her daughter’s life, but Ngaio could see why. She felt guilty that she had abandoned her New Zealand novel and had written only travel articles since she’d left New Zealand. Trips to the theatre became serious and critical, and fashionable nightclubs an occasional luxury. She started to think more seriously about writing a detective novel.
For Rose, the links Ngaio made with their own life and A Man Lay Dead were uncanny. In fact she had taken names, places and characters directly from real life. Most disquieting was Dr Tokareff, the Russian from Sir Hubert Handesley’s embassy days in Petrograd. He not only shared the same name, but was obviously based on Peter Alfanasivich Tokareff, an unstable Russian émigré who had played opposite Rose in a production of George Calderon’s The Little Stone House in 1914. Rose, a talented amateur actress and excellent acting coach, had invited him to practise at their home on the Cashmere Hills. They rehearsed endlessly, and the inevitable happened: Tokareff became enamoured with Rose, then Ngaio. On the evenings he visited them, they would hear him coming up the hill singing ‘at the top of his formidable bass voice…My father, who found him noisy, would look up from his book and say mildly: “Good Lord, the Russian.”’ Henry and his wife were worried. Their daughter was the focus of their life and they did not want her to marry. Ngaio was flattered but not emotionally mature enough to handle the volatile relationship. After declaring his love for her, the rebuffed Russian disappeared. Rose Marsh recognized his singing and his accent intonations in the fictional Dr Tokareff’s dialogue and mannerisms. The doctor was a suspect in the novel; Peter Tokareff, a victim of real life. On 28 October 1919, he was discovered dead in a Christchurch park. The unfortunate man had committed suicide.
In early 1932, Rose Marsh returned to New Zealand, reluctantly leaving Ngaio in England. She had hoped her daughter would come back with her, but did not feel she could push the point. Ngaio would only realize how much her return would have meant to her mother when it was too late. Really, there was no contest: her wild London life with the Rhodeses was infinitely more appealing than daughterly domesticity in sleepy Cashmere. With sadness, and a sense of guilt mixed with a certain amount of relief, she saw her mother off, then moved back in with the Rhodeses to immediately resume her old life. But it was only a matter of months before a worrying letter arrived from her mother. Rose was ill and it seemed her recovery would be protracted. Other letters came, and then a cable from her father that clutched at her heart. Three days later she sailed for New Zealand.
Frantic to depart, she barely had time to think about her book. Fortunately it had been typed and was left with Edmund Cork, a literary agent in London. On the wharf it dawned on her that her life was in two places half a world apart. She wondered if she would ever see her mother again, but also whether the Rhodeses would save her a seat in the English ‘bandwagon’ she had come to love.
It was August 1932, the chill end of a stark Christchurch winter, when Ngaio returned. Her parents’ bedroom at Marton Cottage was a hushed sickroom. There were silences and huddled out-of-sight consultations. Death could be only briefly contained, but to Ngaio, sitting by the bed watching, Rose Marsh’s end was as ‘cruelly and as excruciatingly protracted as if it had been designed by Torquemada’, the most cold-blooded of the Dominican inquisitors. Rose’s pain was managed so that they could whisper their parting words. The change in the woman Ngaio and Henry loved was terrible to see. She had been the family’s mainstay; elegant, effervescent, always the driving force. As a child, Ngaio had watched in awe, believing her mother to be the most beautiful, talented woman alive. Rose had that special mixture of qualities that accelerated a child’s imagination: she was both literary and theatrical, so life in her small family became a pantomime of castles and strange imaginary creatures.
Rose came from a family of conjurors, so it was only natural that she would add the magic. Her mother, born Esther Coster, taught her how to work hard, how to economize, and how to be a good wife; but it was her father, Edward Seager, who taught her how to perform, brilliantly. He was an Englishman who had arrived at the tiny settlement of Port Lyttelton in 1851. Behind the fragile makeshift buildings of Lyttelton loomed the natural amphitheatre of the Port Hills, and close behind them was the settlement of Christchurch on the flat Canterbury Plains, stretching 40 miles (65 kilometres) across to the blue mountainous margins of the Southern Alps in the west. In England, Edward had been a poor schoolteacher, but he did not pursue this job in the colonies. At 24 years of age he became a sergeant, virtually in charge of the district police force. He designed a new police uniform, and within three years had tracked down and arrested James McKenzie, the notorious sheep rustler.
His job meant that Seager was in charge of both the prison and the asylum, because the colony made no distinction between the mad and the bad. At the time of his arrival, the Lyttelton prison housed 11 inmates in a room 14 feet (4.3 metres) square. Blankets crawled with lice. ‘The roof leaked. There was no proper sanitation, no books, no indulgences, a diet that was not a diet, and hardly any furniture.’ Seager lobbied for better conditions, and when in 1863-64, Sunnyside Hospital was finally built a few miles out of Christchurch, he moved there to become superintendent, and his wife, the matron. His treatments were both progressive and unorthodox. He improved diet, hygiene, and access to fresh air and exercise, but it was his commitment to cultural and mental stimulation that was almost unheard of. He called the patients his ‘children’; he built a stage; he had a piano and organ installed; he gave magic lantern shows; circuses came; plays were performed; madness and fantasy mixed in a way that was medicinal.
His great love was conjuring. One of his favourite tricks was an act of levitation, where an appropriately sized daughter was ‘crammed into a torturous under-suit of paper-thin jointed steel’. She would sit on stage reading a book with her chin propped pensively on her hand. Edward Seager waved his wand and turned ‘a secret key in his daughter’s back. The armour locked.’ And, as Ngaio later recalled, ‘Puck-like, Gramp snatched the stool from under her and there she was: suspended.’ For encores, he would saw his daughters in half, or make them disappear in a magic cabinet. ‘The patients adored it.’ He was also something of a mesmerizer-cum-faith-healer: ‘he would flutter his delicate hands across and across’ the foreheads of difficult patients, and family and friends, until their headaches disappeared.
Rose emerged from her eccentric childhood as a quite ‘extraordinarily talented’ actress. She lived the parts she played and brought the characters alive in a way that was spellbinding. At just 19, she was chosen to play Lady Macbeth for a visiting company led by American Shakespearian actor-director George Milne. He wanted her to travel with the company, but she refused. When the English actor Charles Warner visited New Zealand, he offered to take her to England and launch her career. Again she declined, travelling with him and his wife only as far as Australia to get a flavour of the professional actor’s life.
Rose found the makeshift bohemian existence of the travelling theatre unpalatable. The life was too untidy; the change, the uncertainties, the stress of opening to unknown audiences in unfamiliar centres too much for her. She returned to Christchurch, resumed her amateur acting activities, and on the stage met future husband, Henry Marsh. He was a tall, good-looking man like her father, theatrical and imaginative, with a dry wit and an idiosyncratic way of looking at the world that was unexpectedly funny. He wooed her with his humour and his make-believe. The chemistry between them on and off the stage was magnetic. They married in 1894, when Henry was 31 years old and Rose a year younger.
Ngaio described Gramp Seager and her father, Henry, as ‘have-nots’. Christchurch was a cruel place in which to be a ‘have-not’. The colonial vision for New Zealand was an egalitarian England reconstructed in an Antipodean Eden. It was to be a clean start: a post-industrial culture in a pre-industrial country. Community would stratify and flourish naturally without the artificial strictures or social evils of the Old World. In reality, class consciousness and social evils were packed in trunks along with the ballgowns, white ties and tailcoats.
In Canterbury, the founding charter was less egalitarian. The Canterbury Association Society, established to colonize the province, planned to transplant a perfectly variegated specimen of English society, complete with aristocracy and middle and lower classes. A good deal of the land surrounding Christchurch was sold off in huge farming blocks to wealthy English families who became the social élite. The city itself, laid out on a grid pattern with civic parks and gardens and, later, an elegant Gothic Anglican cathedral at its heart, was to be the service centre of the rich farmland that developed.
Christchurch’s social stratification began with the first four Canterbury Association ships that landed in Lyttelton Harbour in December 1850. The well-heeled immigrants on board became the city’s founding fathers, bequeathing to their descendants membership of an elect group. Since both sides of Ngaio’s family had missed these social boats, there was only property ownership to distinguish them, and, as much as he was admired (and even romanticized), Gramp Seager was only a public servant and Ngaio’s father a simple bank clerk. Thus, in Christchurch they were ‘have-nots’.
Rose and Henry Marsh rented a small house in Fendalton—the best area they could afford—and kept a maid, which was almost beyond their means. Gramp Seager was a dreamer and a spendthrift, but still an ambitious man; Henry Marsh lived in a world of his own. From early days, Rose realized he would make a better father than provider. Their daughter, Edith Ngaio Marsh, was born on 23 April 1895. Henry’s belated attempt four years later to register her birth created an official error, that Ngaio later used to claim she was born in 1899. (And this mistake was perpetuated in print many times.)
It was a perfect marriage of opposites. Henry’s soft-centred fantasy combined with Rose’s galvanized theatricality to create an imaginative wonderland for Ngaio that she never completely escaped. She was the centre of their world, and their world was a stage where life and drama mixed so seamlessly that the anxious, sometimes highly strung young Ngaio could not distinguish the difference. She was disconcerted when she saw her parents rehearsing a new script: suddenly they became strangers. In The Fool’s Paradise, her mother was transformed into a wicked femme fatale who slowly poisoned her husband. The tension of the scenes was overpowering for the terrified child. Her horror of poison lingered, and was reignited when Rose Marsh took her to a production of Romeo and Juliet. The fighting scenes were incomprehensible. She buried her head in her mother’s lap. ‘They aren’t really fighting, are they?’ she asked desperately. ‘Yes, yes!’ cried Rose, consumed by the action on stage. And to add to the awfulness, ‘there was Poison and a young girl Taking It!’ This confirmed Ngaio’s lifelong phobia about poisons.
But Rose’s judgement was usually sound. She took Ngaio and her young friend Ned Bristed to children’s plays like Sweet Nell of Old Drury and Bluebell in Fairyland, and when the vast International Exhibition opened in Christchurch in 1906, Rose took her daughter numerous times to see displays of paintings, go to concerts, watch the dazzling nightly fireworks, and take wild sideshow rides. She introduced Ngaio to literature that braced her mind and imagination. Between the ages of 11 and 14 Ngaio read David Copperfield, Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend. She was read to, and read herself, a kaleidoscope of different titles that included anything from Peter Pan to Roderick Random and Tom Jones, which her father recommended she read to find out about ‘fast’ girls.
Sexual looseness was tolerated by neither of her parents; nor did they accept breaches of etiquette or sloppy diction. Their uncompromising Victorian standards were rigorously policed, especially by her mother. It was a hothouse childhood Rose wanted for her daughter, and she was prepared to sacrifice having another baby to provide it.
Ngaio’s first taste of the real world was a tiny, 20-student dame school run by Miss Sibella E. Ross for children between the ages of six and 10. Fitting in was an ordeal for Ngaio, who was the tallest in her class and had an astonishingly deep voice. Rose Marsh was anxious, but she realized that her only child must integrate. Ngaio made firm friends with two bristling boys in the class, and the bullying ceased.
Rose and Henry Marsh were in their early 40s by the time they had finally saved enough money to build their own home. They bought a steep section on the Cashmere Hills close to Christchurch, and employed Rose’s architect cousin, Samuel Hurst Seager, to design a four-roomed bungalow with a large verandah, which they called Marton Cottage. A horse-drawn wagon was loaded with their belongings, and they journeyed from Fendalton to the Cashmere Hills, camping in bell-tents near the site for three months. They were so eager, they moved in before it was completed. ‘From the beginning we loved our house,’ wrote Ngaio. ‘It was the fourth member of our family.’ At last they were homeowners in a town that made property a criterion of status.
Marton Cottage was a brilliant piece of Marsh family foresight. At the time they bought the section, the Cashmere Hills were a blank canvas of heathery tussock, low bush, and the occasional stand of trees with an isolated homestead. As Christchurch grew, Cashmere became one of its most desirable suburbs. On a clear day, the view from the cottage across the city to the distant Southern Alps was breathtaking. But in the opening decade of the 20th century the city had not yet begun lapping at the edges of the honey-coloured hills, and the trip into town to Miss Ross’s school involved a long walk and then a protracted tram ride. Rose took Ngaio each day. On the way home, they always got off a stop early and walked to save paying for another section.
When Ngaio became too old for the dame school, her mother struggled with lessons at home for a while before deciding to employ a governess, Miss Ffitch. Ngaio was more of a challenge now. The outdoor life of the Cashmere Hills had instigated a Huckleberry Finn phase. Her constant companions were boys: Vernon, who lived locally, and her cousin Harvey, and later there was Ned Bristed. They made rafts and sailed them up the Heathcote River, they lit campfires, played primal games of hunt and chase across the tussock, and ran wild.
Henry Marsh did not exactly stem the tide. He secured Ngaio a succession of ponies, which were being broken in, so she could ride bareback along the beach. When she was still a young girl, he gave her a Frankfurt single-bore rifle. ‘How superb were those sunny mornings when I was allowed to walk behind my father and Tip [the family dog] through the plantation where he and his friends went quail-shooting. On these occasions he was completely and explicitly himself.’ It was Henry in his mellow easy moments with whom Ngaio identified; but it was Ned who taught her how to smoke:
We bought a tin of ten ‘Three Castles Yellow (strong)’ divided them equally, retired into a wigwam we had built among some gorse-bushes, and chain-smoked the lot without evil results. Encouraged by this success, we carved ourselves pipes from willow wood into which we introduced bamboo stems and in which we smoked tea. We also smoked red-hot cigars made of pine needles and newspaper.
For a time Ngaio was out of control. ‘I had become a formidable,’ she later admitted, ‘in some ways an abominable, child.’ It was little wonder that Miss Ffitch chose to ignore the sight, from a bedroom window, of Ngaio under the trees with her head wreathed in pipe smoke. ‘I encountered her gaze: transfixed, blank, appalled, incredulous. For a second or two we stared at each other and then her face withdrew into the shadows.’ In addition to formal lessons, Miss Ffitch had the unfortunate job of dragging her reluctant charge twice a week to piano lessons with ‘Miss Jennie Black, Mus. Bac.’, a title Ngaio delighted in chanting ‘because of its snappy rhythm’. According to Ngaio herself, she ‘had a poor ear, little application and fluctuating interest’, but at other marriage-worthy accomplishments she was even worse: ‘I had and have, rather less aptitude than a bricklayer for sewing’. She was beginning to show real promise at art, but it was the shining light of Miss Ffitch’s Shakespeare that first penetrated the smoky haze of Ngaio’s adolescence. She began with King Lear. Despite the fact that it was a censored version with every possible sexual reference or innuendo removed (‘just torture, murder and madness left’), and even though Miss Ffitch delivered it primly without ‘a word of exposition’ other than the notes (which she overused), Ngaio ‘lapped it up’. She could understand it. She loved the poetry of its language.
It was probably with a sense of relief that Rose Marsh watched as ‘Miss Ffitch said goodbye and bicycled down the lane for the last time’: Ngaio was going to school. It would cost them a fortune for fees and the expensive uniform, but Rose felt certain that it would be worthwhile. Ngaio needed taming.
It was 1910, and St Margaret’s College had just opened and was run by a strict order of Anglo-Catholic nuns. Only the best families could afford to send their daughters there. Rose would have to scrimp and save even more, but the school had the values and status she wanted. It was not that she was an avid Christian, or even a great snob; what impressed her most was the school’s serious attitude towards young women’s education. The curriculum was heavy in literature, history and the arts, but what they taught promised to be equal to that of any good boys’ school. She knew Ngaio had potential and believed that Ngaio could realize it there. She was right. ‘From the first day, I loved St. Margaret’s.’
Ngaio swapped Huck Finn for High Anglicanism. ‘To say that I took to Divinity as a duck to water is a gross understatement. I took to it with a sort of spiritual whoop and went in…boots and all.’ St Michael and All Angels was the school’s parish church. She adored its theatre: the sermons denouncing sin and promising retribution; the processions; the banners; the dressing-up—the stoles, the copes and the cassocks; and the ‘drift of incense’ mingled with the smell of waxed wood and coir matting. The vicar’s children, the ‘Burton sisters’, became special friends. They were English and loved acting and the theatre. The other close friend was Sylvia Fox.
Then there was the drama of her English classes. ‘Eng. Lit. with Miss Hughes was exacting, and absorbing, an immensely rewarding adventure…she gave me a present that I value more than any other: an abiding passion for the plays and sonnets of Shakespeare.’ But Ngaio felt guilty about Miss Hughes. After winning a Navy League Empire Prize ‘with an essay containing thirty-one spelling mistakes’, she got the distinct impression that her teacher was not amused and would have liked to have read this, and other things her pupil wrote. Ngaio’s diffidence about her work made it hard for her to ask for assistance. She was very independent, but also painfully shy at times.
However, Ngaio’s interest in literature, creative writing, drama and art was fostered, so she distinguished herself, becoming head prefect in her senior year. This brought her into regular contact with her ‘schoolgirl crush’, the headmistress, Sister Winifred. They began swapping confidences, Ngaio trying awkwardly one day to express her wish to do something for the Church. ‘To my amazement,’ Ngaio recalled,
she opened wide her arms and, with a delighted smile exclaimed, ‘You are coming to us!’
Nothing could have been farther from my thoughts. Never in my most exalted moments had I imagined myself to have a vocation for the Sisterhood. Immersed in the folds of her habit, I was appalled and utterly at a loss. It was impossible to extricate myself…I listened aghast to her expressions of joy and left in a state of utmost confusion. It was an appalling predicament.
But Ngaio did find a calling at St Margaret’s. In fact, she found two: art and the theatre. While still at high school, she studied part-time at the Canterbury College School of Art, taking classes two afternoons a week in the antique room from 1909 to 1914. The results were encouraging. She believed art would become her occupation, and the theatre her leisure. In her lunchtimes, twice a week she went to the lower school at St Margaret’s to entertain the small girls by writing stories and enacting them. This evolved into the play Bundles, which was deemed good enough by Sister Winifred (who harboured no hard feelings) to be performed at the end-of-year prizegiving.
Encouraged, Ngaio wrote a full-length play called The Moon Princess, based on a fairy story by George Macdonald. ‘I showed it to my friends, the Burtons and they bravely decided to produce it on quite an imposing scale at St. Michael’s.’ Her mother agreed to take a leading role, as the witch. Rose played her heart out. She screeched the ‘dark nights’ curse so frighteningly that the neck of every small child in the house crawled with fear. Her big scene was with Helen Burton, who was director as well as star of the show. They gave it ‘everything they had’, transforming Ngaio’s dialogue. Gramp Seager was there, too, and after the final performance he presented Ngaio with two precious heirlooms. One was a book called Actors of the Century, with his own emphatic annotations in the margins; the other was the ‘tawny-coloured lush-velvet coat’ of renowned actor Edmund Kean. This was his highest accolade.
Rose Marsh was a very proud woman that night. There were social engagements in Christchurch she could not attend because of the state of her clothes. She recycled her dresses, coats, hats and shoes so that her daughter could stay at school. Now, her sacrifice was vindicated. Ngaio was a work in progress. Through her, Rose could relive her own life and overcome the fear that had halted her development. There was much at stake.
Ngaio believed that her mother ‘over-concentrated’ on her. ‘Is there such a thing as a daughter Fixation?’ she asked in Black Beech. ‘If so, I suppose it could be argued that my beloved mother was afflicted with it.’ But how else could Rose realize her ambition?
After school finished, Ngaio’s life became harder for Rose to control. When Ngaio met the Rhodes family in 1924, it was almost impossible. There were weekend parties at Meadowbank. ‘In perpetuity’ wrote Ngaio flippantly in their visitors’ book after one of her stays. Her parents went to Meadowbank, too, and enjoyed it, but found the life of indolent luxury there something of an enigma. In England the Rhodeses were very kind to Ngaio, but Rose felt they had led her daughter astray. Her illness had brought Ngaio home.
Whatever I may write about my mother will be full of contradictions. I think that as I grew older I grew, better perhaps than anyone else, to understand her. And yet how much there was about her that still remains unaccounted for, like odd pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Of one thing I am sure: she had in her an element of creative art never fully realised. I think the intensity of devotion which might have been spent upon its development was poured out upon her only child.
Rose Marsh died of liver cancer on 23 November 1932. She was 68 years old.
Three months after Ngaio’s return to New Zealand, ‘on a warm evening, my father and I faced each other across my old schoolroom table and divided between us the letters of sympathy that we must answer’. It would be a different future without Rose. Paradoxically, in spite of all that she had done to realize her daughter, it was in Rose Marsh’s absence that Ngaio became herself. ‘Most of us,’ she wrote reflectively in Black Beech, ‘could point to a time, often long after physical maturity has been reached, and say to ourselves: “it was then that I…grew up.” My mother’s illness…marked I think my own coming-of-age.’ The Marsh household became orientated towards masculine things. Ngaio and her father bached together in a comfortable but less colourful life.
Then one day a note arrived from her literary agent Edmund Cork to say that he had placed her book with publisher Geoffrey Bles and that it would be released in 1934. It seemed nothing short of miraculous. Ngaio had hoped, but had hardly had time to give the book’s progress a second thought. Geoffrey Bles offered her £30 in advance and a 10 per cent royalty. She worked on the proofs long-distance. When the book arrived, two months after it was on the shelves in England, Henry read it captivated, as Rose had, ‘with his hand shaking and the pipe jiggling between his teeth when he came to the exciting parts’. The dedication was:
And in memory of
Nineteen thirty-four was a big year for the Queens of Crime.
Agatha Christie released her chilling Murder on the Orient Express with another remarkable dénouement that left readers rushing for the rulebook. Surely, it was not cricket to have everyone involved? After writing 29 novels, plays and collections of poems, Christie was reaching her zenith.
Then there was Dorothy Sayers, who was realizing her aim of integrating detective fiction with the novel of manners. In her eighth novel, Murder Must Advertise, published in 1933, she found her stride and so did Lord Peter Wimsey. He was less affected, and so was she. Sayers was writing about her own experiences working in an advertising agency. Her familiarity with the people and the settings gave the story conviction, making it her most successful and well integrated so far. The Nine Tailors, published in 1934, continued this process, providing readers with perceptive observations of church life and bellringing. By enriching the crime novel, Sayers expanded its market. Her interventions did not change the style or form, but they did rehabilitate it for a more sophisticated audience, ultimately broadening its readership.
The publication of Margery Allingham’s Death of a Ghost, also in 1934, was another watershed. This was her first truly accomplished piece of crime writing. With her talent now tempered by the experience of writing six Campion novels, Allingham combined the dramatic tension of earlier books with more convincing characterization and plot to create a captivating story.
The Queens were in their prime when Ngaio began publishing, and their writing helped generate a huge interest in the genre. During the inter-war period—marked by the end of one catastrophic conflict and the anticipation of another—there was a seemingly spontaneous desire among readers to assuage fear of universal death by focusing on the particular. The demand for detective fiction burgeoned. But it was a difficult field to break into, and its exponents were well practised. Considering the context of its launch, Ngaio’s A Man Lay Dead did remarkably well. Critics who had watched Christie, Sayers and Allingham develop seemed prepared to let Ngaio do the same, although there was confusion over the writer’s race and gender. The Times Literary Supplement critic took a stab. ‘Mr. Marsh’s manipulation of motive and alibi is neat and effective and repays careful attention’, but ‘His methods of detection…[are] somewhat distracting’, and Chief Detective Inspector Alleyn, a ‘most superior person, expensively educated and a connoisseur of good living [is] rather tiresomely familiar’. This kind of criticism inspired Ngaio to develop her own individual approach.
She was working on a script that represented a new departure. Enter a Murderer drew on her knowledge of the theatre, ‘trying to get the smell and feel of backstage’. The Rat and Beaver at the Unicorn is a play-within-a-novel, which echoes rather than explains the action. Roderick Alleyn is in the audience at the Unicorn Theatre, as a guest of Nigel Bathgate. The tension is palpable in the final fatal scene of The Rat and Beaver. Anger boils between cartel bosses the Beaver, played by Surbonadier, and the Rat, played by Felix Gardener. The intensity of their venom has brought the audience to the edge of their seats. Bathgate feels extremely uncomfortable because he knows the fury between the men is more than just acting: off stage they hate each other. Inspector Alleyn’s eyes are riveted to the action. Nigel can see the tension in his face. The anxiety is almost unbearable.
This is the moment of truth when the infamous Rat is exposed as an illicit drug trafficker, traitor, Nazi spy, or hero of the British Secret Service. The Beaver’s masterminding of the opium trade is well known. On stage he takes a revolver from his pocket and loads it, then addresses Gardener, the man who, in real life, has stolen his starring role and his lover.
‘So the Rat’s in his hole at last!’
‘Beaver,’ whispered Felix Gardener…‘You’re not a killer, Rat,’ he said. ‘I am.’
Gardener raises his hands above his head, but then in the doorway stands Stephanie Vaughan holding a revolver pointed at Surbonadier. The Beaver has been outmanoeuvred by his cheating stage girlfriend (and real-life ex-lover). He drops his hand. The gun hangs limp in his fingers. Sneeringly, Gardener thanks Stephanie as he takes the revolver from Surbonadier. She taunts him. Suddenly Surbonadier snaps, grabs at Gardener’s neck, and pushes his head back. Gardener’s hand jerks. Bang goes the gun across the blackness. The sound is deafening. ‘Surbonadier crumpled up and, turning a face that was blank of every expression but that of profound astonishment, fell in a heap at Gardener’s feet.’ Alleyn seems to know what has happened, even before the shocked usher finds him, seated on the aisle. He urges Nigel to get out as quickly as possible.
Someone has exchanged real bullets for fakes, breaching the boundary between illusion and reality. In the make-believe of the play, the Rat shoots the Beaver. In real life, Arthur Surbonadier is dead on the stage floor. There is no doubt that Gardener has killed Surbonadier, but did he murder him? It is in the slippage between illusion and reality that the ambiguity of the crime exists. The act of murder presupposes intent: the act of acting assumes pretence and therefore innocence. Is Gardener innocent or guilty? The answer is in his face when Chief Detective Inspector Alleyn tricks him into climbing up a ladder backstage beyond the ceiling cloth and into believing that a large sack hanging from a rope in the ceiling is the body of his second victim, Props.
‘Alleyn!’ he cried in a terrible voice, ‘Alleyn!’
‘What’s the matter?’ shouted Alleyn.
‘He’s here—he’s hanged himself—he’s here.’
His horrified face looked down at them.
‘It’s Props!’ he repeated…
‘Come down,’ said Alleyn.
Gardener comes down, and within six rungs of the stage he turns and sees the men who are awaiting him. With an incoherent cry he stops short. His lips are drawn back, showing his gums. A streak of saliva trickles down his chin. He squints. ‘And how do you know it is Props?’ asks Alleyn. In that instant, the actor is unmasked to reveal the murderer, and his animal-like snarl is confirmation. Felix Gardener is the face of deviance exposed. In Ngaio’s closed world, he represents a temporary aberration in the fabric of normality. As in most Golden Age detective fiction, his psychology, his pathology, his reason for being what he is, is of less interest than the process of his identification and removal. The genre’s focus is the restoration of order, and in the anxious decades of inter-war uncertainty this was immensely appealing.
The theatre provided Ngaio with the perfect place to stage a murder. It was a hermetic, hierarchical world where schedules and patterns of behaviour could be scrutinized and checked, and it was filled with sinister potential. Behind the stage was a labyrinth of backdrops, props and passageways; in front, when the lights went down, was a sea of blackness. Then there were the actors, their emotions heightened by the tensions of putting on a show and playing their parts. Among spectators, too, there was the buzz of excited expectation, and a tempting echo of crime novel readers, who were a parallel audience. It was an ideal backdrop against which to tease out issues. Ngaio was still intrigued by Pirandello’s Six Characters, with its metaphysical exploration of illusion and reality: ‘If you long above everything to be a director, this is the play that nags and clamours to be done.’ She was not yet directing actors, but she could direct characters. What interested her was the melodramatic way actors play themselves in real life.
‘Darling,’ [Stephanie Vaughan] said, taking her time over lighting a cigarette and quite unconsciously adopting the best of her six by-the-mantelpiece poses. ‘Darling, I’m so terribly, terribly upset by all this. I feel I’m to blame. I am to blame.’
Surbonadier was silent. Miss Vaughan changed her pose. He knew quite well, through long experience, what her next pose would be, and equally well that it would charm him as though he were watching her for the first time. Her voice would drop. She would purr. She did purr.
Enter a Murderer had more dramatic pace and change of scene than A Man Lay Dead, and the dialogue was more compelling and implicit in moving action along. The characters were convincing and in sharper relief. The theatre was not just a venue for crime, it was the book’s defining energy, creating a cohesive, vivid piece of writing.
Ngaio would write sunk in an armchair, mostly at night, with a favourite fountain pen filled with green ink in an exercise book or on loose-leaf foolscap paper in a hard cover resting on her knee. Only when the house lights went down did the characters come onto the stage of her imagination. The scenes would run through her mind almost complete, as if she were watching them. After she had written 1,000 words or so, the curtains were drawn and she would go to bed. She was disciplined and methodical, writing fluently with relatively few changes. Those she did make were written in the margins, above the line, or on the back of the facing page. The next day, what she had written would be typed by the woman she paid to handle her correspondence. She needed help and enjoyed her secretary’s regular company.
Ngaio found the recovery from her mother’s death ‘agonising’. Her father became a constant companion. ‘[When] we built a hut in the Temple Basin above Arthur’s Pass, he carried weatherboarding with the best of us up steep flanks in a nor’-west gale.’ One of Henry’s great gifts to his daughter was his spring of youthful energy. He gave her the ability to be physically and mentally young, long after youth usually lasted. In the latter part of his life he drew on it himself, tramping vast distances with her into the mountains. He played tennis, gardened, and continued his secretarial work. He was, in Ngaio’s mind at least, a Peter Pan figure who immersed himself in a Neverland of late-night Lexicon games and mild-mannered drinking sessions with the boys. She felt almost parental towards him, but there was a cantankerous side that could suddenly rear up and remind her of their true relationship. At a point when she could have become independent, the tables were turned, and Ngaio the only child began caring for her only parent. It worked because of an arrested development in them both: he was not looking for another wife and she was not searching for a husband—or even a life substantially different from that of her childhood at Marton Cottage.
In many ways Ngaio was an orthodox person, yet her dress was startling for a woman in New Zealand in the mid-1930s. A photograph taken by her friend Olivia Spencer Bower in 1936 shows her seated on the back of a chair surrounded by fellow artists. She is conspicuous in her mannish slacks, tie and beret. Yet she wore her ‘cette monsieur-dame’ dress to shock. Why? Was it to delineate herself as a modern woman? Was it to identify herself as a lesbian? Certainly, she knew it would signal both to some, and so this ambiguity may have been deliberate. But an androgynous persona was also commanding and theatrical, and more accurately perhaps expressed the woman she was. A person of independent means defined not by femininity, marriage or motherhood, but by her talent and skill as a writer and director. ‘I think I’m one of those solitary creatures that aren’t the marrying kind,’ she would later write in her autobiography.
But this was only partly true, because there was a gregarious side to Ngaio that was satisfied by her women friends. She began picking up the threads of her old life. During the summer of 1933-34, she went on trips to the mountains with her Canterbury College School of Art friends. With her father’s help they built a hut at Temple Basin so they could live and paint together. She loved the beauty and solitude of the magnificent ranges. On hot days the mountains became a suffocating crucible of stillness and heat, yet she found it cleansing. Olivia Spencer Bower painted Ngaio at her easel sketching the foothills of the Southern Alps on a dazzling Canterbury day, squinting into the brilliant sun, absorbed in her work, at one with the environment. Concentration on her painting and comfort in the company of old friends eased Ngaio’s grief. Although Spencer Bower made a number of images of Ngaio working in the landscape, it was Phyllis Bethune (née Drummond Sharpe) who was her most constant companion, and other friends such as Evelyn Page (née Polson), and Rata Lovell-Smith (née Bird) travelled with her to paint in places like the Aclands’ station at Peel Forest in South Canterbury, and the Mackenzie Country.
In the years immediately after the First World War, Christchurch had become the country’s leading centre for the visual arts. Canterbury College School of Art was buoyant and had a reputation as one of the best art schools in the country, known for its painters, especially those who painted landscape en plein air. The city had an active exhibition culture. ‘The Canterbury Society of Arts [CSA] was considered the most lively of New Zealand art societies.’
Ngaio and her friends were the cream of the art school. Ngaio had been enrolled there full-time from 1915 to 1919. Also attending had been Page, Lovell-Smith and Haszard; Spencer Bower had begun part-time study in 1920. Collectively, they represented a phenomenal blossoming of post-war female talent. Not only did they share the ambition to become professional painters, but they knew it was an unconventional role. ‘Life at an Art School is considered by many to be Bohemian; this, to a great extent is true,’ wrote Rhona Haszard. ‘To people passing along Rolleston Avenue…we may certainly appear eccentric as we wander about in our paint-dabbed smocks, singing tuneful quartets.’ As students, they ate meals together between classes, ‘worked at anatomy, perspective and composition’, and had parties there after evening session ended at nine o’clock. Leslie Greener remembered Haszard, ‘a lithe, slim figure’ among her studio friends, ‘curled up in a chair strumming on a banjo while everyone sat round on the floor and crooned accompaniment’.
But heady student days gave way to the serious task of earning a living. In spite of her dramatic and literary successes, Ngaio had always seen herself making her living from art. ‘It had never occurred to me that I would attempt to be anything else in life but a serious painter: there was no question of looking upon art as a sort of obsessive hobby—it was everything.’ Her college years seemed to substantiate this dream. She practically paid her own way through art school with scholarships. She won the Pure Art Scholarship and Medal, worth £25, in 1917 and 1918, and two awards for figure composition in her final year. Art appeared to be her destiny. In order to establish her career, she exhibited with the CSA from 1919 to 1926, and also intermittently with the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts (NZAFA) in Wellington and art societies in Auckland and Dunedin. However, even though she was mentioned positively in reviews, her receipts were modest.
As students, Evelyn Page and Ngaio had shared a studio, along with Haszard, Edith Wall, Margaret Anderson and Viola Macmillan Brown, and after leaving art school they kept it on. By 1927, it had become an established sanctuary away from the strictures of Victorian upbringings and families. They were delighted, not just to escape there, but also to assert their professionalism as artists. ‘We rented a small room in Hereford Street,’ recalled Evelyn Page many years later.
It was a tiny room…then I think it was Edith Wall who discovered the old Press building…right in the middle of Cashel Street, was vacant…and it was a whole top floor…it was brick and you had to go up a fire escape to get into it and…there were great big square windows all round so the lighting wasn’t too bad but it was very cold so we had points put in and heaters, electric heaters. We couldn’t afford too many of those so we had kerosene heaters as well…we thought we’d…have exhibitions…and we did.
They whitewashed the walls, and ‘Ngaio thought instead of having tea and sandwiches’ at the opening, that they should have ‘a hock cup…or a claret cup’. So they pooled their money and bought a ‘vast basin’ of wine. They invited their friends, then ‘we thought, we’d better invite some possible buyers…so we looked up the telephone book and rooted out all the wealthy old dowagers of Christchurch and invited them too and up they came, up the fire escape and had their hock cup and ran round buying indiscriminately—it was marvellous!’
In fact, this was a point of radical departure for art in New Zealand: the beginning of The Group. The exhibition, with its ‘hock cup’ and dowagers, was its inaugural show. Group members were looking for an opportunity to show their work outside the CSA’s annual Edwardian clutter of pictures. ‘There [was no] deliberate attitude towards the Arts of Christchurch,’ said Ngaio of The Group’s genesis. ‘There were no politics. We were not a bunch of rebels, or angries, we were a group of friends.’ They were discerning friends, though, Page remembered: ‘We invited…only the newest, the most modern of our contemporaries.’ The Group would become one of New Zealand’s most important outlets for progressive painters.
Ngaio was a relatively pedestrian painter, and her talent glowed dimly in a constellation of stars. Page was beginning to realize her talent as a dazzling colourist who could apply Impressionistic brush strokes of impasto paint with a skill that looked effortless. Equally, Haszard was distinguishing herself, with pictures painted in the British Camden Town style composed of luscious paint-loaded mosaics of bold Post-Impressionist colour. Other talented painters—Spencer Bower, Rata and Colin Lovell-Smith, Rita Angus and Louise Henderson—were also establishing careers. In this context, many of Ngaio’s Impressionistic scenes of New Zealand High Country looked staid and formulaic. They were competent but tepid: she laid down the bones of the landscape but not its heart.
By the time Ngaio joined her women friends (and two men, W.H. Montgomery and William Baverstock), in their new Cashel Street studio in 1927, she realized that art would never be more than an abiding passion. She showed with The Group in 1927 and 1928, then left for England.
Her friend Rhona Haszard had departed two years earlier, and many of their contemporaries followed. It was difficult for artists to establish themselves in New Zealand without the authority of overseas experience, so they were lured away. A few, like painter Frances Hodgkins, remained abroad, but most came back. The news, therefore, of Haszard’s death after a four-storey fall from a tower in Alexandria, in February 1931, sent shockwaves through conservative Christchurch. Many, already suspicious of her second husband Leslie Greener, believed he had killed her because of an affair she had while staying in London. Rumours abounded. His decision to bring his wife’s paintings back to New Zealand and sell them reignited controversy. Ngaio almost certainly saw Greener’s memorial exhibition, which he toured nationally in 1933, the year after she returned and began exhibiting herself. She showed with the CSA in 1933, and The Group in 1935, and continued to exhibit intermittently with The Group until 1947.
Among the paintings she showed at the CSA in 1933 was Native Market, Durban, taken from the photograph and quick sketch she had made on her voyage to England. Ironically, there is more visual interest in the bustling human energies and vibrant marketplace colour than she ever achieved in the remote Canterbury landscapes she loved to paint. The simplified forms of the figures and produce have a sculptural quality reminiscent of Paul Cézanne and his precept that Nature can be structurally reduced to the cone, the cylinder or the cube. She was influenced by work she saw in Europe, but also by Australian Margaret Preston’s magnificent Post-Impressionist distillations of white-on-white: in Native Market, Durban, these are in the white folds and twists of turbans, veils and dresses.
Her painting In the Quarry was exhibited at the CSA in 1935. The subject is a group of local relief workers building a section of Valley Road close to her home on the Cashmere Hills. She looks down on the scene from above. The summer day is hot, and men work, sit, stand or laze lethargically in wheelbarrows. The work is a vivid communication of an ordinary scene. Forms are simplified and geometric. Captivating contrasts of work and repose, blazing light and deep shadow, and the warm cream of a dusty dirt road cut through lush green grass, activate the canvas. At The Group exhibition that opened in early September 1932, English émigré and Post-Impressionist Christopher Perkins showed four oils and a group of drawings. His hard-edged naturalism, with its simplified form and colour, pointed to a new direction in New Zealand art. Ngaio had seen the exhibition, and his drawing Employed, reproduced in Art New Zealand in September 1932. This almost certainly influenced her In the Quarry. She called it Still Life for the CSA catalogue, a pun as her novel titles often were. After the ‘mistake’ was pointed out by a literal-minded art society official, the painting was retitled and entered in the correct section.
But just as Ngaio was beginning to embrace modern ideas in painting, her writing career swept her off in another direction. Enter a Murderer was published in 1935, along with The Nursing-Home Murder, which was to secure her place as a leading crime writer in Britain. The year before she had suffered from gynaecological problems. ‘I spent three months in hospital undergoing a series of minor operations and a final snorter of a major one.’ As a result, quite devastatingly for her, she could never have children. While she was in hospital Ngaio began thinking of another story, about a murder that occurred, not on a stage, but on the table of an operating theatre. The parallels are obvious. It was a closed environment with distinct hierarchies and procedures, and the same kind of intensity of performance. But the stakes were higher and life routinely in balance. Imagine if the patient were the British Home Secretary, fighting for his life after a ruptured appendix, and everyone around the operating table had a motive for killing him…
Again, in The Nursing-Home Murder, a play within the novel becomes a metaphor for the action. In the sterile chill of the anteroom, nurse Jane Harden and Sister Marigold help the two surgeons into their white gowns.
‘Seen this new show at the Palladium?’ asked [assistant surgeon Dr] Thoms.
‘No,’ said Sir John Phillips.
‘There’s a one-act play. Anteroom to a theatre in a private hospital. Famous surgeon has to operate on a man who ruined him and seduced his wife. Problem—does he stick a knife into the patient?’
Phillips, deeply affected by Dr Thoms’s description of the play, turns slowly to look at him. Nurse Jane Harden stifles an involuntary cry. Unable to contain himself any longer, he asks suddenly how the play ended. Dr Thoms replies, ‘It ended in doubt. You were left to wonder if the patient died under the anaesthetic, or if the surgeon did him in. As a matter of fact, under the circumstances, no one could have found out.’ As Roderick Alleyn will later point out, the operating theatre is ‘the ideal setting for a murder. The whole place was cleaned up scientifically—hygienically—completely—as soon as the body of the victim was removed. No chance of a fingerprint, no significant bits and pieces left on the floor. Nothing.’
The Home Secretary, Sir Derek O’Callaghan, dies of a lethal dose of hyoscine administered on the operating table. Because she needed medical knowledge, Ngaio took on her only collaborator, Irish surgeon Dr Henry Jellett. She also consulted Sir Hugh Acland. Both men were her specialists while she was in hospital, and friends of the Rhodeses. What is new about The Nursing-Home Murder is its sustained focus on the political rather than just the criminally deviant. ‘Bolshie’ Nurse Banks’s impassioned speeches against capitalism introduce villainous ideology, which is any belief against the status quo. The veins stand out on her neck; her eyes bulge; she is fired with political fervour.
‘And for that reason [Sir Derek’s] the more devilish,’ announced Banks with remarkable venom. ‘He’s done murderous things since he’s been in office…He’s directly responsible for every death from under-nourishment that has occurred during the last ten months. He’s the enemy of the proletariat.’
Even Alleyn’s generous helping of upper-crust pie does not escape her scrutiny. ‘I know your type—the gentleman policemen—the latest development of the capitalist system. You’ve got where you are by influence while better men do bigger work for a slave’s pittance. You’ll go, and all others like you, when the Dawn breaks.’ Although Nurse Banks is like a bad fairy at a Society wedding, she cannot be the killer: it is a golden rule of Golden Age crime that personal motive can never be superseded by the political.
After the book was finished, Ngaio decided to produce it as a play, Exit Sir Derek, with a group of local amateur actors. Once again, she called upon the expertise of Henry Jellett. He was a perfectionist, insisting on endless rehearsals. A stickler for detail, he made a ‘startlingly realistic false abdomen with an incision and retractors’. He stationed a fully trained theatre sister in the wings to prepare the patient. He gave strict instructions to the cast that if a glove was dropped it must not be retrieved. The opening night audience was peppered with doctors, who came to see their colleague’s collaboration. The last Act was set in the operating theatre. To make it realistic, Jellett released ether into the audience. The medical malpractice began when the assistant surgeon dropped a glove, and picked it up off the floor. (The audience laughed, especially the doctors.) Meanwhile, beneath the felt abdomen the actor writhed in muffled gasps of pain. In the wings, the overexcited sister had clipped his flesh rather than the felt with the retractors. The nauseating smell of ether plus the graphic unveiling of the felt incision was too much for the circle. An ‘actress from an English touring company screamed and fainted’ and, with difficulty, was carried out of the auditorium. In spite of initial hitches, the play opened to packed houses, and Ngaio considered sending the script to her agent, but decided it was too similar to another American stage play.
The rhythms of life at Marton Cottage were predictable and sedate, yet Ngaio’s books were far from tranquil. In Death in Ecstasy, published in 1936, she faced her phobia: poison. ‘The House of the Sacred Flame, its officials, and its congregation are all imaginative and exist only in Knocklatchers Row,’ Ngaio wrote in her foreword. This was a touch of irony, because in Christchurch the story was instantly recognizable.
Forty years before, the fictional House of the Sacred Flame’s flesh-and-blood forebears had existed in the town’s Latimer Square. American Arthur Bently Worthington had taken the globe, spun it around and chosen the most far-flung outpost to escape to. He was one of life’s real villains, a polygamist (with nine wives), a thief, a defrauder, a fake. Worthington, notorious in the United States for marrying wealthy women and taking their money, arrived in Christchurch in January 1890, with his ‘soul mate’, the already-married Mary Plunkett, international journal editor for the Christian Scientist sect, and her two children.
Worthington and Plunkett, renamed Sister Magdala, began a sect called the Students of Truth, based on a junket of beliefs that included pantheism and free love. By August 1892, with vast amounts pledged by the people of Christchurch, the sect built ‘the imposing Temple of Truth, and next to it a “magnificent 12-room residence” for the Worthington family’. Worthington’s mistake was to cross Sister Magdala, whom he banished with a splinter group to Australia when finances got low. She, and a collection of concerned Christchurch clergy, exposed Worthington in the press. The tide turned in September 1897, and at a series of revival lectures at the Oddfellows’ Hall 6,000 angry people gathered in Lichfield Street to protest against Worthington; the crowd had to be forcibly dispersed. Ngaio’s father, an arch sceptic and evangelizing atheist, chuckled over the episode until he nearly collapsed. His daughter was two years old when Worthington met his Armageddon, and Henry Marsh delighted in retelling the story as she grew up.
The version Ngaio tells in Death in Ecstasy is slightly different. Outside is blackness. The wind blows and rain beats against the temple roof as Sister Cara Quayne reaches a state of dishevelled ecstasy.
Her arms twitched and she mouthed and gibbered like an idiot, turning her head from side to side…She raised the cup to her lips. Her head tipped back and back until the last drop must have been drained. Suddenly she gasped violently. She slew half round as if to question the priest. Her hands shot outwards as though she offered him the cup. Then they parted inconsequently. The cup flashed as it dropped to the floor. Her face twisted into an appalling grimace. Her body twitched violently. She pitched forward like an enormous doll, jerked twice and then was still.
Ngaio’s equivalent of ‘Sister Magdala’ was dead.
‘To this day, on the rare occasions that I use poison in a detective story, I am visited by a ludicrous aftertaste of my childish horrors.’ Ngaio must have spent some time exorcizing the after-image of Cara Quayne, ‘eyes wide open and protuberant…At the corners of the mouth were traces of a rimy spume. The mouth itself was set, with the teeth clenched and the lips drawn back, in a rigid circle.’ This was a death mask of rigor mortis brought on by the ingestion of cyanide of potassium.
Ngaio researched every aspect of her novels, especially the deaths. She knew police procedure and kept a diagram on her wall of the hierarchy of command at New Scotland Yard. Her shelves at home began to fill with books on poisons, medical jurisprudence, and forensic medicine. She consulted her medical friends and the reference section of the local library. Ngaio never wrote anything unless she investigated it before Alleyn. The vividness of Cara Quayne’s ugly end, and its power as an image ‘to linger in the memory’, came from its authenticity, and from the fact that, as crime writer and critic P.D. James has said, ‘Death is never glamorised nor trivialised in Ngaio Marsh.’ In Death in Ecstasy, Ngaio harnesses the power of death to shock more fully than in her previous novels, and this she would refine further. Her fear of poison unlocked her imagination to explore the experience with a horror that was more than just intellectual.
Heroin was another substance she researched for her novel, because worshippers at the House of the Sacred Flame are hooked on more than just religion. Their highs come from heroin-laced cigarettes and a chalice of Le Comte’s Invalid Port spiked with pure alcohol. The sect, inspired by the teachings of Father Jasper Garnette, Ngaio’s Worthington figure, is broadly pantheistic, with Scandinavian deities Wotan and Thor mixed with a hint of free love between Garnette and his ‘Chosen Vessel’, Cara Quayne. ‘Garnette seems actually to have persuaded her that the—the union—was blessed, had a spiritual significance,’ announces Alleyn in disgust. Cara, a young, gullible neophyte, has made a £5,000 donation to the temple building fund. She is hypnotized by Garnette’s religious prognostications and hooked on heroin, which, along with cocaine, was a favoured drug of 1930s detective fiction writers. Narcotics such as these were known as the abuse of the upper classes. It became fashionable to write about drugs and drug trafficking, along with blackmail, jewel robbery, embezzlement, trophy-wife snatching and will jumping. ‘Pin-point pupils’ were synonymous with high-society doping. Well-connected Arthur Surbonadier is shot at the Unicorn Theatre because of his drug connections. Wealthy Cara Quayne dies in an ecstasy of unwitting addiction. Drugs would become a regular theme in Ngaio’s novels.
Death in Ecstasy makes teasing reference to Ngaio’s colleagues in crime. She is playing with the reader and with other writers of detective fiction. It is halfway through the story and Alleyn and Nigel Bathgate are ‘taking stock’:
‘Look here,’ said Nigel suddenly, ‘let’s pretend it’s a detective novel. Where would we be by this time? About half-way through, I should think. Well who’s your pick [for the murderer]?’
‘I am invariably gulled by detective novels [Alleyn replied]…You see in real detection herrings are so often out of season.’
‘Well, never mind, who’s your pick?’
‘It depends on the author. If it’s Agatha Christie, Miss Wade’s occulted guilt drips from every page. Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter would plump for Pringle, I fancy. [Freeman Wills Croft’s] Inspector French would go for Ogden.’
This is a delicious irony, a playful piece of unconscious self-consciousness that underscores the real nature of Alleyn’s and Bathgate’s existence compared with their fictional colleagues. Ngaio’s humour, her increased confidence as a writer, and her respect for practitioners like Christie, Sayers, and Freeman Wills Croft inspired this very public private joke. She also paid her respects to Arthur Conan Doyle. ‘I receive facts…as a spider does flies,’ announces Alleyn in Holmesian style, and Bathgate makes this slightly nauseating comment: ‘I am your Watson, and your worm. You may both sit and trample on me. I shall continue to offer you the fruits of my inexperience.’
Ngaio would return to the theme of human gullibility in the face of religious sham, but never again with quite the same echo of reality. ‘Damn, sickly, pseudo, bogus, mumbo-jumbo,’ says Alleyn with great violence about Father Garnette, and those were Ngaio’s thoughts. As an adult she was sceptical about all religion. She grieved for the loss of her adolescent fervour, wanted to believe in Christianity, but the leap of faith became a chasm.
Ngaio was the only agnostic Queen of Crime. Agatha Christie slept all her life with a crucifix by her bed; Dorothy Sayers was a theologian and a devout, if not always practising, Christian; and Margery Allingham became an avid follower of Christianity in her later years. Ronald Knox was the Roman Catholic chaplain at Oxford University when he formulated the precepts of Golden Age detective fiction in his ‘Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes’, published in 1928. His precepts were steeped in Christian ideology. For the Queens of Crime, writing about murder was not a betrayal of Faith but an affirmation, the Christian theme of sin and expiation played over and over again. The murder victim was the sacrificial lamb, given up so that the agent of sin, the murderer, could be found out and exorcized. The detective was the high priest, the detective story a modern apocrypha. Ngaio may have lost faith in the Christian message, but she never tired of retelling its story.
In the evenings, when she began a new book, Ngaio wandered from room to room. In perpetual motion she formed the ideas, and it was often daybreak before they flowed freely. She slept, then waited again until nightfall to begin bringing her characters alive. Her nocturnal habits meant she rose late, but the rest of the day was free for the theatre and to paint. Exit Sir Derek reconnected her with repertory, which was lively in the city, Stepping onto the stage took her back to her beginnings. As a child she had written a play in rhyming couplets for a cast of six, called Cinderella, and at St Margaret’s Bundles and The Moon Princess. It was the arrival of the Allan Wilkie Shakespeare Company in 1915 that rekindled her interest in writing for the theatre. She was transfixed, as if she was watching the progress of a miraculous comet across the sky. ‘The opening night of Hamlet was the most enchanted I was ever to spend in the theatre.’ English actor-manager Wilkie, his striking actress wife Frediswyde Hunter-Watts, and their travelling company played to audiences in the Far East, North America and Australasia. They were the remnant of a bygone era, but to a centre starved of professional theatre they seemed rare and illustrious. People queued for tickets, Ngaio and her student friends cut evening art classes, and for two weeks Shakespeare took Christchurch by storm.