Ngaio Marsh Essay - Marsh, (Edith) Ngaio

Marsh, (Edith) Ngaio

Marsh, (Edith) Ngaio 1899–

Dame Ngaio, a New Zealander, writes highly literate and successful detective novels. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Ngaio Marsh's characters seem mostly fantasy. The sheer business of trying to be psychologically plausible about a small group of people (usually with subterranean pasts) who are meant by the rules of the genre to have performed some almost gymnastically ingenious act has often defeated the detective story writer. And from that basic implausibility poor character-drawing may hurtle the characters (or 'cast' as Marsh calls them) into ridiculous love affairs and little lives as pat as their actions. What has always distinguished Miss Marsh from the rest has been her gift for narrative clarity, for linking striking situations together. The little pasteboard men are shoved around the board with great dexterity. (pp. 772-73)

David Hare, in The Spectator (© 1970 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), December 12, 1970.

The reason why Miss Marsh's delightful detective stories hardly date is that she is such a very good light-story teller. One needn't even be interested in solving a difficult case of drug-trafficking, unusual blackmail and murder to enjoy [When in Rome, her] tale of luxury sightseeing in Rome. (p. 19)

The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1971; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), January 1, 1971.

Tied up in Tinsel is not a reprint, though it might be and surely will often be! As, mark you, Death in Ecstasy which appeared in 1936 has been. The incredible ease with which Miss Marsh conceals the skill and effort of her constructions under a surface of bright light humour is no more remarkable now than it was all those years ago. She has not needed to develop, to improve—she was always just right. Apart from a few details, this country house staffed entirely by convicted murderers might have figured in a 'thirties whodunnit, though the then legal processes might have made such characters less freely available. Alleyn and Fox don't seem a day older than when we first met them, and well deserved promotion seems to elude them, too. (p. 82)

Leo Harris, in Books & Bookmen (© copyright Leo Harris 1972; reprinted with permission), June, 1972.

Along with Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh is an acknowledged master among mystery writers. Now some vintage Marsh, the early Roderick Alleyn adventures from the '30s, have been published in this country…. It is fascinating to watch her talents sharpen as both she and Alleyn take on confidence with experience.

In A Man Lay Dead, originally published in England in 1934, there is a strong evidence of the Marsh bench marks: inventive plotting, character cameos and original backgrounds. By 1937, with Vintage Murder, her awkwardness in dialogue and story-telling has disappeared. (p. 13)

Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), November 19, 1972.

Dame Ngaio has now reached that classic state where she is almost above criticism….

Dame Ngaio has an extraordinary gift for the drawing of characters just this side of eccentricity (and sometimes those on just the other side, as in Surfeit of Lampreys), as well as an amazing sense of the visual: her atmospheres and scenic set pieces are always pure magic. Her detection is, of course, usually excellent, but her achievement in scenes and tones serves to remind us of how important it is for the detective story writer, expecially one in the traditional mould, to create a separate and slightly artificial world for his or her characters. It is in the precision and completeness of these fictional worlds that the detective writer most readily manages to suspend the disbelief of the reader, and if the writer's mind has a turn for the bizarre, as Dame Ngaio has, the world becomes one providing particular delight for the reader. (p. 550)

The Spectator (© 1974 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), May 4, 1974.