Caroline: Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
This is another episode of Queens of Crime at War, a series looking at what the best writers from the golden age of detective fiction did once that period came to an end with the start of the Second World War. If you haven’t listened to any of the previous episodes, you might want to go back and catch up after you’ve heard this one – so far I’ve covered Agatha Christie, E.C.R. Lorac, Margery Allingham and Josephine Tey.
Today, our subject is a writer who had a very, very long publishing career, almost the longest of the queens of crime I’m talking about in this series. She stretched herself between two very different worlds – the country of her birth, and the place where the golden age of detective fiction was in full swing. Her fiction pulls in these two directions too, which is in part what makes it so interesting. And as the Second World War kept her grounded in her hometown for a long period, those years informed what she would go on to write about her surroundings and her compatriots for years to come.
She is, of course, Ngaio Marsh.
Ngaio Marsh always inhabited two worlds. She was born in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1895, to a father who had emigrated there from England as a young man, and a mother who had English parents. On both sides of her family, she inherited memories and ideas about England as her point of origin, even though she lived half a world a way.
She made her first trip to England in 1928, in her early thirties. She stayed there for several years, forging close connections with the Rhodes family, well to do Brits who had spent time in New Zealand in the early 1900s. Through them, she was introduced to many of the settings that would later appear in her crime fiction: country houses, seaside resorts, and London society parties. It was during this first stay that Marsh wrote what would become her first detective novel, A Man Lay Dead, and she also wrote travel articles about Britain for publications back in New Zealand.
Looking back at her life now, it seems like she was keen to put down roots in London, but in 1932 she was recalled home suddenly because her mother was very ill with cancer. After Rose Marsh passed away in the November of that year, Ngaio remained in Christchurch for several years to keep her father company. She renewed her connections there, getting involved with local theatre companies, exhibiting her paintings, and writing more of the crime novels that were beginning to sell well as the demand for detective fiction grew through the 1930s. She became an established figure in the arts in Christchurch, a position that she would grow into over the following decades and with which she is still identified today.
Gail: I didn’t really discover her as a crime writer. I first knew of her when I was a student. I went to teacher’s college in Christchurch, which was her hometown and, She was a figure of great fame there. And not long before, probably about 10 years before I was there, the university theatre had been named the Dame Ngaio Marsh Theatre, or the Ngaio Marsh Theatre, I don’t think she was a Dame at that stage. I was doing some drama courses at teacher’s college, which used the university. So she came to a couple of the productions, none that I was in, but she came to several of my productions, particularly the Shakespeare productions that friends of mine were in.
Caroline: This is Gail Pittaway, a senior lecturer specialising in creative writing at the Waikato Institute of Technology in Hamilton, New Zealand. She has used Ngaio Marsh’s work extensively in her teaching and research, and as you’ve just heard, is able to give us an insight into how Marsh was regarded and appreciated on her own turf, as it were.
Best of all, because Marsh lived well into her 80s, Gail actually has some first hand impressions of her to share.
Gail: I remember seeing her and she was quite a terrifying, the imposing person. She was very tall, quite strict, you know, by the time I saw her and I seem to recall with some kind of fur and a hat and gloves and driving an extraordinarily large English car, I think it was an English. You know, which to kind of swept and pulled up outside the main entrance of the theatre, which no one else would dare to do, but it was her theare.
She was very posh. Christchurch of all our cities prides itself on its Englishness. It’s got, you know, schools that are private schools that are very much fashioned upon the English public school model and beautiful stone buildings, which of course have suffered terribly after the earthquakes.
But you know, she came from that very English identified New Zealand family life. So she thought like an English person, she was that older generation for whom England was still home.
Caroline: Ngaio Marsh renewed her acquaintance with her other home, England, in 1937, when she once again made the long voyage from Christchurch to London. Already the author of four well-reviewed detective novels, she enjoyed her new status in literary London. She became better acquainted with her literary agent, Edmund Cork, who was also Agatha Christie’s agent as it happened, and she even attended the inauguration of E.C. Bentley as the new president of the Detection Club, who succeeded to that title after the death of G.K. Chesterton in 1936. Because she lived so far away, Marsh was not eligible to be invited for full membership – at that time, members were required to attend and contribute to fairly frequent meetings – but she was from the late 1930s onwards a regular invitee when she was in the country.
This trip lasted over a year, and again she spent much of the time with her friends the Rhodes, both at different places in England and travelling in Europe. But things were very different in the late 1930s to how she remembered them in the last 1920s. She spent three months travelling with friends in Germany, Austria and northern Italy, which gave her a close up view of a Europe on the brink of war. As a tourist in Nazi territory she was treated to only the best sights and hotels, but there was a dark side visible too.
She met people who greeted each other with “Heil Hitler” and heard the wonders of Mussolini’s regime extolled in detail. In one place, she even saw a pair of “brownshirts”, likely Nazi paramilitaries, posting a notice about how an elderly Jewish couple in the town were to be ostracised by the rest of the community. Writing about the incident in her autobiography Black Beech and Honeydew decades later, Marsh denounced it as obscene and recalled how she had struggled to sleep for the rest of the time she was there.
She returned to Christchurch in 1938. There can be no doubt that she intended to go back to England soon, but in actual fact because of the outbreak of year the following year it would be almost a decade before she made the journey again. This separation, the need to stay put, throws her conflicted ideas of where “home” was into sharp relief. Here’s Gail again to explain how that resonates in New Zealand in more detail.
Gail: I grew up at a time when some people were still referring to England as home. Because my parents didn’t, they were both kind of third or fourth generation Kiwis. But certainly some of our teachers talked about England as home and we certainly had a very colonial connection. So that attachment to home and that desire to stay close to Britain. And, you know, for example, our magazines are still full of the Royal family. And now there’s still a really strong connection there. Ngaio Marsh of course was no exception.
She would have spent probably more than half of each year in Britain for at least half of her life. And then three months back in New Zealand producing plays and fostering the arts, you know, after once she had matured and had come back to look after her mother and then started commuting backwards and forwards.
So she was clearly in love with Britain and she identified herself very strongly with both cultures. And that’s a lovely anecdote about her, isn’t it, that when she was in Britain at a hotel she signed her New Zealand address and in New Zealand and she signed her British address in a hotel.
Caroline: Marsh reflects on this dual identity in her autobiography, which was first published in 1965. She writes of her community in New Zealand that “we are often to by English people how very English New Zealand is, their intention being complimentary…. I think we are more like the English of our pioneers’ time then those of our own… If you put a selection of people from the British Isles into antipodean cold-storage for a century and a half then opened the door: we are what would emerge.”
Even as war was raging and the world was beginning to grapple with the colonial legacy of the British Empire, Marsh and her contemporaries in Christchurch remained very close to the idea of England as the “old country” or “home” in a positive sense. And now, because of the war, she was kept away from that place where she had had so many of her formative life experiences – written her first novel, opened her own business, lived an independent life. She had been a great one for travel, describing her desire to get out into the world at one point as a “constant itch”. But now she was stuck at home, and not even necessarily the “home” where she wanted to be.
Her response to this separation was to give her imagination free rein in her fiction. The run of detective novels that she published after returning in 1938 all immortalise some aspect of England that she had encountered on that trip. Overture to Death takes place in a classic rural English village, Death at the Bar features a remote Devon fishing village based on a place where she had taken a holiday, Surfeit of Lampreys contains an aristocratic family closely based on her friends the Rhodes, and Death and the Dancing Footman takes the reader to a posh country house of the kind that she had visited.
While she is writing these oh so English detective novels, Marsh is of course actually in New Zealand, where the experience of the early years of WW2 is rather different to what she had encountered in Europe. Initially, the war felt remote to Marsh and her fellow New Zealanders – like something that they understood in principle but had little personal contact with. Marsh’s father Henry enthusiastically dug a shelter in their garden that they could occupy in the unlikely-seeming event of air raid or attack, but she noted in her autobiography years later that his construction was far from sound – the whole thing would likely have fallen in on their heads if they’d actually tried to use it. This seems to have characterised those early months for her. There was plenty of talk of war, but its effects weren’t being felt yet.
But that changed in the early 1940s, when many thousands of people joined up to fight overseas, and the shortages of goods that were usually imported to the islands began to be felt. Marsh signed up to be a Red Cross ambulance driver, ferrying the wounded soldiers who were arriving back at Christchurch’s docks to the hospital. What she heard of the war in Europe from news reports and her friends’ letters fired her sense of patriotism for this place she could not now visit anymore – her correspondence from the time is full of her apologies and even expressions of guilt that she cannot be there with her friends, experiencing air raids and rationing.
This enforced stay in New Zealand opened up new opportunities to her, however. She was asked by her publishers, Collins, to write the text for an illustrated guide to New Zealand that they were putting out, and in putting it together she travelled around her own country extensively for the first time, something that she would put to good use in her detective fiction later on. She also became a broadcaster for the first time, delivering talks on the radio about her travels in Britain and Europe, which were then also published in print. These were incredibly popular, and elevated her to a level of fame in New Zealand that she had not enjoyed previously.
But I think what unites both of these developments is the fact that Marsh was always observing her own country from the outside. Her travel book required her to look at New Zealand and describe it for a largely British and American audience, and her radio talks were similarly based on her experiences as an observer elsewhere. Even with the success she had had in both of her “homes”, her identity and indeed her loyalty remained divided between the two.
After the break: Roderick Alleyn comes home.
Ngaio Marsh wrote 33 novels featuring her detective, Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn of Scotland Yard. Perhaps in an indication of where her heart truly lay, the vast majority of them take place in England, with only four being set in New Zealand. Interestingly, these are spaced out throughout her writing career, and thus give us the opportunity to glimpse both the way her country was changing, and the way her own attitudes to it shifted through her life.
Alleyn first comes to New Zealand in his fifth outing, 1937’s Vintage Murder. A convalescent detective travelling for his health and encountering murder en route was not an especially original setup at this point in detective fiction’s golden age, but Marsh’s twist of having the crime take place in a travelling theatre company elevated it. Having both Alleyn, the classic upper class Englishman, and all the class distinctions contained within the company, displaced to New Zealand, gave Marsh plenty of scope to interrogate the differences and frictions between these two places. Her most recently biographer, Joanne Drayton – who you can hear on this podcast if you scroll back to episode thirteen – describes this book as Marsh’s “first proper airing” of New Zealand’s problematic relationship with Britain as “mother country” to some and oppressive colonial power for others. Alleyn is anxious that the local police shouldn’t think he is trying to make himself superior to them, and at the same time feels out of his depth not understanding the nuances and vocabulary of New Zealand English. Language was always a preoccupation of hers, and in this book she uses it as a way of showing difference and status.
Gail: She makes quite a lot about our accents and the way we speak and it’s very noticeable in the first couple with Alleyn, things like, um, there’s a saying, someone says, and I can’t remember, but it’s something like crikey or corker or something, but there’s a one word and it stands for everything.
It means it’s good. It’s bad. It’s a different, you know, everything. And there’s the kind of monosyllabic Kiwi male, you know, particularly agrarian Kiwi male comes through, but you know, you could probably put that person in Somerset or somewhere an agrarian somewhere. It’s a word, but I think some of the phrases would be difficult.
Caroline: Gail does recognise the language that Marsh gives to some of her New Zealand characters, though, even if it does feel a little dated from today’s perspective.
Gail: I’m really pleased that she’s put it in because it is quite authentic to the time. You know, my dad used to get some of the sayings that are that are in the books. And he and his mates would talk and they’d never say a thing. “Hey gang, but it, yeah, she’s a bit of all right. Yeah. Uh, you know.”
They were probably talking about the weather, but they could have been talking about a car. I don’t think they were talking about their wives, you know, but it was just that kind of incoherent phatic communication. But I think it’s quite a strong feature of New Zealand conversation and certainly of a certain era of New Zealand and male conversation.
Caroline: Later on, during the Second World War, Alleyn returns to New Zealand for two more novels – 1943’s Colour Scheme and 1945’s Died in the Wool. The war is present in these books, not least because Alleyn is there because he’s part of a counter espionage mission aimed at flushing out Nazi activity and sympathy in the country. But in both cases it is regular murder that he ends up detecting against that wartime background. And in both books, Gail feels, the landscape of New Zealand becomes a character in its own right – a kind of Gothic background to the death and destruction of the main plot.
Gail: Her description of that very, very treeless landscape, it was slashed and burned, you know, by generations of pioneers and travellers. And before that by the Maori and so the trees have been taken off the mountains. And so you just have these long sweeping valleys and then high piercing mountains and long river valleys. And it’s very isolated, very beautiful and very inspiring indeed.
And I think she has, that there’s a real love for the landscape and that, whereas on the others, she sort of sees things like the volcanic plateau they’re all genuine scenarios. And I think she’s wanting to say, well, this is a very exotic aspect of New Zealand. You know, we have our volcanic areas, we do have boiling mud pools. We have geysers and they are happening and they were much more accessible to people in the times that she’s writing about than nowadays. We realise that people have often contaminated, walking and traipsing across these heritage nature sites, you know, they’ve been quite damaged.
And so there are a lot more protected and also of course they’re very dangerous. So we put fences around them to stop people falling in them so on and they are very hot. So her representation of the New Zealand landscape is authentic and her description, even though they’re fictional landscapes, she’s drawing on authentic connections.
Caroline: In her autobiography, Marsh positions herself as an outsider in her own land, because of her long absences in England. “On my return to New Zealand after five years, I found myself looking at my own country, however superficially, from the outside, in,” she writes, and it’s possible to sense that perspective in the way that she views the place through Roderick Alleyn’s eyes. It’s significant, I think, that she doesn’t give the main role in her New Zealand novels to some new, local character. She would rather look in from the outside. Part of this is down to her own attitudes, but some of it comes from her experience in visual art, Gail says – Marsh was an accomplished painter as well a writer and a theatre director. She gave this talent to Alleyn’s wife, Agatha Troy.
Gail: I think that’s the painterly eye to some extent, I think that she always was an observer as a painter herself, and often when [Alleyn] is reflecting on the landscape, particularly as the novels develop, he’s thinking what Troy might think, his painter wife. And so I think that’s part of it.
And I think it’s a way she’s realizes it’s not a New Zealand audience. Her main audiences are an audience that isn’t outside audience. And so she needs to have an intermediary who was more accessible in sentiment and sensibilities, I think. You know, as an outsider, then, then she might even be.
Caroline: In these novels set in New Zealand that she wrote during WW2, Marsh also gives a fairly prominent role to Maori characters. This can be hard to parse for readers today, who might on the one hand be pleased to see even some recognition or record of indigenous people from the 1940s, but on the other would be right to find Marsh’s portrayal of them dated and ignorant.
Gail: I think people are quite divided. I mean, it’s really still crime readers who read her and the readers of cozy crime. And the aspect there, you know, she’s settled there in time as someone, although her writing career extended very long, you know, 50 years almost or 45 years.
And she doesn’t necessarily reflect a great deal of changes in the society. But it’s quite accurate to that very post-war pre-war and post-war New Zealand that was still very colonial in its attitudes. And I think people are a little bit embarrassed about that, about her in that respect and particularly they she’s being criticised for her representation of Maori, but you know, anyone who isn’t Maori is criticised in that way, because we now have got such a strong groundswell of indigenous writers who have identified themselves and claimed that space. So there’s an awkwardness about it. And she’s very much in that transitional period between the kind of exoticising or if that’s a word, you know, of the representation of it. I think her writing about Maori is very sympathetic, but that’s definitely one of the big areas that people ask what it’s about. So it just depends on who you’re talking to.
Caroline: It isn’t quite as simple as to say that Ngaio Marsh’s depiction of the Maori is “stuck in its time” in the way that some of the portrayals of minorities in detective fiction from the golden age era is. There is a sense in which she is trying to empathise, Gail says, even if it is done in a clumsy, almost patrician way.
Gail: I think it’s in Vintage Murder. She’s got an elder of the local modern tribe called Dr Te Pohika who advises about some of the artefacts and particular, the greenstone tiki that is seen as an omen. He sees this, picked it up and I’d never noticed it before, but he says, you know, for New Zealanders, for the visiting Europeans or the Paheka, you see these as our play things. But we would laugh in the same way with our first encounter with the Bible. So that’s one thing he says, you know, that there’s a contrast and cultures, but the other thing is he says you English or you Paheka give your children pretty Maori names. Well, cos Ngaio’s name is a pretty Maori name, and I’d never picked that up before, but she’s named after a very pretty tree will actually has got very insignificant flowers, but it’s a very pretty tree.
So she has a Maori name, which is just interesting. So I think she does have, she feels some connection, nominal, but also she feels some connection with the land beyond the fact that she comes from here.
Caroline: Ngaio Marsh didn’t return to her other “home”, England, until 1950, and when did she found it a very different place to the one she had left in 1938. She was different too – she was both a relatively well known writer now, and also one who had become firmly embedded in the culture of her hometown in New Zealand. For the rest of her life, she still moved between the two places, but the way in which her reputation as a theatre director survives in Christchurch is perhaps testament to the commitment she made to the arts there.
Interestingly Roderick Alleyn didn’t return to New Zealand for many decades after 1945’s Died in the Wool. It wasn’t until 1980 that Marsh brought him back to the southern hemisphere, this time in company with his wife, for her penultimate novel Photo Finish. It’s a very different kind of plot to the classic golden age tropes of her earlier work, but there is just a little bit of evidence that Marsh’s attitudes had moved on, in keeping with the greater recognition of Maori culture that was developing at the time.
Gail: There’s a big gap between Died in the Wool and Photo Finish. And so there’s just a recollection and Alleyn says a long time ago I was told many things about Maori traditions by Dr Te Pohika, and he said, oh yes, he’s a very prominent elder. Yes, very good. So there’s a compliment being paid back to a fictional character from some 40 years earlier, maybe, or even longer. But that’s about the only moment of recognition. And it’s a little afterthought in that story.
Caroline: Ngaio Marsh’s portrait of New Zealand is individual and partial, entirely coloured by her own background, and should be recognised as such. But as Gail has shown us, it’s authentic to that time in which Marsh was prevented by the war from travelling to England, her other homeland. Both of the places she loved best live on, as she loved them, in her fiction.
This episode was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find details about all the books I mentioned in the description for this episode or at shedunnitshow.com/queensofcrimeatwar. I publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.
If you’d like to help me get to this year’s pledge drive goal of 100 new members of the Shedunnit Book Club, head to shedunnitshow.com/pledgedrive. We’re well over two thirds of the way there now, so if you’d like to take advantage of that buy one, get a free one to give offer, you better hurry.
Shedunnit is edited by Euan MacAleece. Original music by Martin Zaltz Austwick. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin.
Thanks for listening. The next episode in the Queens of Crime at War series will be out in a week’s time.