Edith Ngaio Marsh’s life begins, appropriately enough, with a mystery. Though she was born April 23, 1895, in Christchurch, New Zealand, her father listed her natal year as 1899. This act generated confusion about which the author herself remains vague in her autobiography. She describes her father as an absentminded eccentric descended from commercially successful English stock. Her mother, Rose Elizabeth Seager Marsh, was a second-generation New Zealand pioneer. Though never financially comfortable, her parents provided their only child with an excellent secondary education at St. Margaret’s College, where one teacher instilled in her “an abiding passion for the plays and sonnets of Shakespeare.” This passion interrupted her subsequent education in art at the University of Canterbury when she was invited to join the Allan Wilkie Company to act in Shakespearean and modern drama. She spent two years learning her chosen craft under Wilkie’s tutelage and four more years as a writer, director, and producer of amateur theatricals in New Zealand.
In 1928, Marsh visited friends in England who persuaded her to open a small business in London. The business flourished, as did her writing. Inspired by either Dorothy L. Sayers or Agatha Christie (her memory contradicts itself), she began her first detective novel, which was published as A Man Lay Dead in 1934. Shortly thereafter, she returned to New Zealand and remained there through World War II, serving in the Ambulance Corps and writing twelve more mysteries by the end of the war. Perhaps her best among these books is Vintage Murder (1937), which incorporates many of her themes and settings.
After the war Marsh traveled extensively, maintained homes in both London and New Zealand, wrote more mysteries, and directed plays, primarily those of William Shakespeare, for the students of the University of Canterbury. Her contributions were honored by the university in 1962 when the Ngaio Marsh Theatre was opened on the campus. In 1966, the queen declared her a Dame of the British Empire. Other honors include the 1978 Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America and induction into the Detection Club of Great Britain. On February 18, 1982, Dame Ngaio died in her home in Christchurch.