Ngaio Marsh

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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.'

Like her fellow crime queens, Marsh (made a British dame in 1966) was prolific, writing 32 Inspector Alleyn mysteries from 1934 to her death in 1982. But unlike the others, who were best known for weaving mind-fuzzing puzzles around human psychology, she focused more on constructing lovingly realised settings – from London society to the rustic fields of a New Zealand sheep ranch – around sharply drawn, sometimes hilarious, characters with relatable flaws.

That's not to say Marsh didn't love an extravagant murder, whether it was being lured into a pool of boiling mud (Colour Scheme, 1943) or shot by a gun rigged the the soft peddle of a piano while playing Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C Sharp Minor (Overture to Death, 1939).

But A Man Lay Dead was Inspector Alleyn's first twirl at sleuthing in 1934, and the platform from which he would grow into one of literature's best-loved detectives. When an exotic version of 'The Murder Game' ends with a real body at Sir Hubert Handesley's lavish house party, Alleyn is dispatched to find this world of butlers and Bentleys transform into a web of scandal, conspiracy and the Russian mob.

As Marsh put it, it proved her 'entrée to crime fiction writing' and helped to establish a gold standard for the modern detective novel that remains  today. As for Inspector Alleyn, he remained alluring even to his creator, who said in 1966: 'It would be an affectation to say I'm sick of him. I'm not. I'm completely crazy about him.' 

Footnote

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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