Footnote: ‘A Man Lay Dead’ by Ngaio Marsh

Today marks 125 years since the birth of Ngaio Marsh, one of the most influential crime writers of the 20th century. To celebrate, we're listening to her first mystery, A Man Lay Dead.

Ngaio Marsh

By the 1920s, Sherlock Holmes had gone for good, having hung up his houndstooth hat for a beekeeper's bonnet to retire to a Sussex farm and make honey. British detective fiction needed a new hero. Instead, it got four.

Hercule Poirot, Albert Campion, Lord Peter Wimsey and Roderick Alleyn became Literature's new gentlemen sleuths. Their reign over the genre ushered in a Golden Age of British detective fiction. And their creators – respectively, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh – would rise to become known as the 'Queens of Crime'.

But while Christie may, these days, be the most renowned, many at the time believed New Zealand-born Ngaio Marsh to be the best, and her down-to-Earth hero Inspector Alleyn the most likeable – nowhere more so than in her famous mystery A Man Lay Dead.

'She writes better than Agatha Christie ever did,' enthused The New York Times in 1977. 'She is more civilized, knows something about the arts, and her characterizations have much more life than Christie's cardboard figures ever did [sic].'

Such praise came not just from critics, but of Marsh's contemporaries, too. 'She is a writer's writer, said the celebrated American crime author Dorothy B. Hughes. 'We admire her so tremendously that it is easy to fall into adjectival overpraise.'


Once asked about her Maori forename (pronounced 'Nye-o'), Marsh said, 'What does 'Ngaio' mean? I don't know. Like many Maori words it has a number of meanings - clever, light on the water, a little bug - but I don't know which my parents had in mind.'

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