Ngaio Marsh: Biography & Books

Instructor: Lucy Barnhouse
Dame Ngaio Marsh was a keen painter, and a lifelong lover and interpreter of theatre. It was through the popular medium of detective fiction, however, that she made her most lasting mark, in novels spanning the 1930s to the early 1980s.

Early Life

Ngaio Marsh was born on April 23, 1895, in Christchurch, New Zealand, though her father didn't get around to registering her with civic authorities until 4 years later. She was christened Edith Ngaio Marsh, but it was as Ngaio (pronounced NYE-oh) that Marsh was always known. An only child, Marsh was solitary by default, and introspective by temperament. Even as a child and adolescent, she was busy writing: journals and, later, plays and stories. Marsh's mother Rose was a talented amateur actress, and Ngaio fell in love with the theatre from the first time she was taken to see a performance, at the age of 7.

From 1910 to 1913, Marsh attended St. Margaret's School, where she made lifelong friends. These friendships would last far longer than the passionate Anglo-Catholic religiosity which Marsh practiced while at the school. Looking back from an agnostic adulthood, she herself wryly described this as a way of working off adolescent angst. In the year of Marsh's graduation from St. Margaret's, her play, 'The Moon Princess,' was performed at the school, and praised in the local press.

Marsh did not at first pursue a career in writing, however. She published some short stories in subsequent years, but was more interested in the painting which she studied part-time at Canterbury Art School. Her paintings won some prizes, and Marsh was interested in depicting the dramatic landscapes of New Zealand. She continued to write as well, creating another play that she described as 'very bad in a slightly promising way'. It couldn't have been too bad, as she received an invitation to join a theatre company on the strength of it.

Finding a Career

Ngaio Marsh in 1935

Marsh left the fairly conservative art school without regret, and performed in various touring companies in her late twenties and early thirties, as well as working as a drama school tutor. She exhibited some of her paintings, and enjoyed a growing reputation (and self-sustaining income) as an author. Still, she remained somewhat discontented.

Looking for a change of scenery, Marsh moved to England in 1928. In London, Marsh worked in an interior decorating shop that she set up with a friend. She also wrote (and was paid for) syndicated travel writing. For a woman, particularly a New Zealander, to support herself through such intellectual work was still quite unusual at this time. During Marsh's time in England, she socialized with members of the gentry at house parties of a fast-vanishing kind, which she would immortalize in her books. In 1932, Marsh returned to New Zealand to care for her mother, but not before placing her first crime novel, A Man Lay Dead, with Agatha Christie's agent. It would be published in 1934.

Multiple Roles

On her return to New Zealand, Marsh pursued crime writing and theatre work simultaneously. This pattern would continue throughout her life, with theatre production and mentoring foremost. This is the more surprising when considering Marsh's extraordinarily prolific and highly lauded work as an author. Alongside Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Margery Allingham, Marsh was hailed as one of the Queens of Crime during detective fiction's golden age. Remarkably, Marsh would continue writing her novels - with the same sleuth - until just before her death in 1982.

In her native New Zealand, however, Marsh was - and remains - best known as a theatre director and acting coach. She worked on plays from Macbeth to Six Characters in Search of An Author, both in New Zealand and London. Her work was mostly admired by critics, and almost universally loved by the actors with whom she worked. Marsh was given the Order of the British Empire in 1948, and was made a Dame in 1966. In that same year, she published her autobiography, Black Beech and Honeydew (revised in 1981). By those who knew her, Marsh was remembered as self-deprecating and friendly; by her reading public, she is revered as one of the most masterful writers of the genre.

Detective Novels: Recurring Characters

Home of Ngaio Marsh in Christchurch, New Zealand

In many ways, Marsh's novels are deliberately antiquated, expressing an outsider's nostalgia for an England that never was. Her characters are essentially realistic, though, and her dialogue is vivid. Her detective, Roderick Alleyn, is simultaneously authoritative and self-deprecating. Marsh isn't above a bit of self-mockery, either: Alleyn is known as 'the handsome inspector' in the tabloid press of the novels. Alleyn is also notable for being well-educated but not eccentric, unless one counts devotion to Shakespeare as an eccentricity. Throughout the novels, he is compassionate and unpretentious, though sometimes - like Marsh - a little out of step with the times.

Marsh is also reflected, in part, in one of the series' other recurring characters, the painter Agatha Troy, introduced in Artists in Crime (1938). Troy is self-doubting, awkward, and friendly, devoted to painting landscapes and observing people. Alleyn meets her when she is painting a wharf, and falls promptly in love with her. Troy is suspicious of him, but is won over in Death in a White Tie, and she and Alleyn remain married for the rest of the series. Alleyn's sergeant is even godfather to their son.

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