Here’s a full transcript of the thirteenth episode of Shedunnit.
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Caroline: Before we get started with today’s show, I want to tell you about another podcast you should check out. The Lonely Palette is a show that aims to make art history accessible, enjoyable, and fun, one artwork at a time. Each episode, host and recovering art historian Tamar Avishai picks an artwork, plants herself in front of it at the museum, and interviews unsuspecting passersby to record their first impressions and descriptions. Then, in a 15-20-minute audio essay, she dives deeply into the object, the movement, the social context, and anything and everything else that will make it as exciting to you as it is to her.
With high-quality production values, evocative music cues, and a warm, friendly tone that is both intelligent and welcoming, The Lonely Palette acts as both a witty and compelling museum companion and a narrative radio show about the visual world. In the words of podcast-inventor Christopher Lydon, “this is what those snooze-a-thon museum audio guides should be”. Find it at thelonelypalette.com or wherever you get your podcasts.
Now, on with the show.
By any definition, Ngaio Marsh lived an extraordinary life. She was the longest-lived of the four Queens of Crime from the golden age of detective fiction in the 1920s and 30s and was made a Dame by the Queen of England for her services to theatre in her native New Zealand. Thanks to her 32 detective novels, Marsh is still that country’s bestselling ever author. She travelled regularly between Britain and New Zealand at a time when the trip took weeks rather than hours and was a keen painter and a journalist as well as an author.
Yet she was also an intensely private person, who only shared a little of herself with acquaintances and fans. She never married or had children, and destroyed many of her letters and papers before her death. Her books, of course, remain widely read, but in the UK and the US she isn’t quite as popular as Agatha Christie, say, or Dorothy L. Sayers. There’s even an aura of mystery around Ngaio Marsh herself — who was she really, this globetrotting blockbuster author who lived her life on opposite sides of the world?
Well, stay tuned to find out, because today we’re delving into the secret life of Ngaio Marsh.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
Ngaio Marsh was born on 23 April 1895 in Christchurch on New Zealand’s South Island. Her father Henry didn’t actually register her birth with the authorities until four years later, though, a mistake that Ngaio herself liked to take advantage of in later years in order to claim that she was a bit younger than her true age. Christchurch was a place that had been imbued with a strong sense of class and position right from its beginnings, when in 1850 four shiploads of settlers under the auspices of the Church of England arrived from Britain to expand the town. The passengers on these ships had been specially selected so that they represented the “proper balance squire, merchant, artisan and labourer” according to a 1980s history of the city. Basically, the aim was to export the British class system to this part of New Zealand as a way of getting away from the idea, common at the time, that emigration could be a way of making a fortune and escaping from social structures.
As a result of growing up in this atmosphere, Ngaio described her parents as “have-nots” within Christchurch’s rigidly separated society. Her father, Henry, had come to New Zealand from England when he was a young man and worked as a bank clerk his whole life. Her mother Rose had been born in New Zealand as her parents — Ngaio’s grandparents — had emigrated from England in the 1850s. From what I’ve read of Ngaio’s early life, it wasn’t exactly one of great deprivation, since the family were able to employ two servants and when she was quite young they moved to a newly-built house up in the hills beyond Christchurch, which is where Ngaio first encountered the New Zealand landscape that she occasionally rhapsodised about in her detective fiction. But her family weren’t wealthy by any means, and it’s interesting I think that by Christchurch standards, Ngaio definitely considered them to be on the poorer side.
This class background is important when it comes to getting beneath the surface of Ngaio Marsh’s character and understanding why she was so reticent about her personal life.
Joanne: She was from a generation of people who who were sort of aspirant. They were middle class but aspirant upper middle class to almost you know beyond that. And so to talk about things that were awkward or difficult were just was just not things that those people did.
Caroline: This is Joanne Drayton, a New York Times bestselling author and Ngaio Marsh’s most recent biographer. Joanne’s book Ngaio Marsh: Her Life in Crime was published in 2008, and she’s passionately interested in Ngaio’s work, her life, and what she represents for New Zealand. Perhaps best of all, she’s actually met the woman herself, so we can hear first-hand what the great Ngaio was really like in the flesh.
Jo: My family knew her and I met her myself as a young person. When I was eight I met Ngaio Marsh. My cousin actually was one of her proteges, her acting proteges. So I met her through the theatre and she was a very imposing, wow, absolutely sort of daunting to an eight year old character: very tall, very chic and stunning, really a stunning woman. With a voice that was so low and so deep and resonant that it sort of really blew you blew you away really. It was amazing.
Caroline: Interestingly, even with this encounter as a child, Jo got a hint that there was something more to Ngaio Marsh than there appeared on the surface.
Joanne: Well my mother said to me ‘you know she was one of those sort of women’. At eight years old, I wasn’t quite sure what she meant. And I’m still not exactly sure what she meant but I think she meant. But she was she was a member of a group of women really who were unmarried, who were career orientated, who were very very intelligent, well educated. They were a generation who were not only career women but also women who didn’t have the opportunity to marry. And she was exciting and interesting and I think perhaps my mother might have been referring to notion that she was a lesbian. So. But yes she was interesting and she was ‘one of those sort of women’ and I thought well I’m going to find out what that is.
Caroline: Ngaio Marsh wrote her first detective novel, A Man Lay Dead, in 1931. She was in her thirties and on an extended visit to London, where she was visiting and travelling with her aristocratic friends Tahu and Nelly Rhodes. They had partied all over the place, been to the theatre everywhere and even gambled in Monte Carlo, but on the day that Ngaio started scribbling her first attempt at crime writing in an exercise book, she was back in London and alone for the weekend. She had been writing articles for newspapers back in New Zealand about her travels as “the Canterbury Pilgrim” and she had come to England with some early chapters of what she hoped might be a literary novel, perhaps even an early example of “the great New Zealand novel”, which was felt at that time to be something that hadn’t really come into being yet.
But this was the golden age of detective fiction, and in London she was right at the heart of it. Miss Marple had just made her first novel-length appearance in Agatha Christie’s Murder at the Vicarage. The Detection Club was just getting underway. (Although Ngaio was never a member, she did attend and very much enjoy one of the club’s rituals on another visit to London in 1937.) Also in 1930, Dorothy L. Sayers published Strong Poison, the first Peter Wimsey novel to feature her detective novelist character Harriet Vane, and the year before Margery Allingham had introduced Albert Campion to the reading public in The Crime at Black Dudley. A Man Lay Dead actually has a similar setup to Campion’s debut — it’s also a country house mystery set around a house party in which the guests decide to play an amusing game of “murder”, only for it all to turn tragic when someone is found stabbed to death with a dagger.
Right from the start, though, Ngaio favoured a slightly different approach to some of Christie’s most famously ingenious puzzles. “I invariably start with people, with two or three or more people about whom I feel I would like to write,” she said of her process many years later. “Very often I begin to write about these people in their immediate situation with no more than the scantiest framework for a plot and its denouement.” This character-led approach is one way in which her novels stand out from others of the same period — they’re not quite as obsessed with the ‘how’ of the mystery, and lean more on the characters and their relationships. Her detective, Roderick Alleyn, is famously detached and somewhat self-effacing. Marsh’s stories are clever, funny and well-constructed, but Alleyn perhaps lacks the showiness of a Hercule Poirot or a Peter Wimsey. He’s above all extremely plausible — a detective who likes method but doesn’t keep going on about it, and who hates making unfounded guesses. He did mature over the course of Marsh’s dozens of books containing him, but his progression wasn’t nearly as drastic as that of Peter Wimsey or Albert Campion, say, who had much further to travel from their initial caricatures into rounded human beings.
Ngaio’s mother Rose visited her daughter in London in the early 1930s, and according to Joanne’s biography, was impressed by an early draft of A Man Lay Dead. Rose hoped that her daughter might come home to New Zealand with her at the end of her trip, but the lure of literary life in London was too great. Ngaio longed to stay and remain part of it all, but she did have to return home in 1932 when her mother fell ill. Ngaio left the manuscript of A Man Lay Dead behind in London with a literary agent named Edmund Cork that summer in the hope that he might be able to find a publisher for it and took the long boat back to New Zealand, where her mother was seriously ill with cancer. Ngaio got back in August, and her mother died in November, no doubt pushing any thoughts of Roderick Alleyn and his adventures out of her mind. Laid low by grief and convinced of the need to stay in Christchurch to be with her now retired and widowed father, Ngaio put any further travel to Britain on hold. But although she herself might be staying in New Zealand for the foreseeable future, Ngaio had left a little piece of herself behind in London in the form of her first detective novel, and from henceforth she would live a divided kind of life, split between the north and south hemispheres, and her public and private selves.
More on that, after the break.
This episode of Shedunnit is brought to you by HarperCollins, publisher of The Mystery of Three Quarters by Sophie Hannah. This is a new Hercule Poirot story — a stylish, diabolically clever mystery set in 1930s London. In it, the beloved Belgian sleuth returns home from lunch one day to find an angry woman waiting outside, demanding to know why Poirot has sent her a letter accusing her of the murder of a Barnabas Pandy, a man neither of them have ever heard of or met. As The Mystery of Three Quarters continues, it turns out that other letters like this have been sent too. Of course, Poirot has to investigate — who is writing these awful letters under his name, and who is Barnabas Pandy, the supposed murder victim? You’ll have to read the book for yourself to find out.
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Now, let’s head back to New Zealand and Ngaio Marsh.
It was a few months after Rose Marsh’s death that Ngaio received word from her agent that he had found a publisher for her first detective novel, A Man Lay Dead. She received a £30 advance and the book was published in 1934, with Ngaio receiving the final copies a full two months after they went on sale in the UK, because that’s how long it took for things to reach New Zealand. It was a moderate success, with some critical acclaim, although a few reviewers struggled to work out the writer’s gender and background thanks to Ngaio’s Maori originating first name. It came out the same year as Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Nine Tailors, both acknowledged masterpieces of the detective genre. The fourth Queen of Crime had arrived.
But even as her writing career developed and flourished, Ngaio Marsh would always feel pulled between two worlds. Here’s Joanne Drayton again:
Joanne: I think she had a split life really she lived in two places. And I think that gave her also a certain amount of she could be one person one sort of person in one place and another person in another place. So I think New Zealanders knew a very different Ngaio Marsh to the one that she presented publicly in the UK and then you know I mean she was very ravishing and chic and quite down to earth and New Zealand where that was much more you know the thing to be. But I think it was fascinating that she managed to also make that shift in her writing because most of her writing really was intended I think to satisfy the genre that was shaped.
Caroline: In a way, Ngaio Marsh was a chameleon: she could be whatever the situation required of her.
Joanne: So she fitted in there with you know Christie, Sayers, Allingham, Tey, very well but she also had she could actually turn the genre into a New Zealand story as well. In that period of that period with all the same kind of cosy intensity almost village like intensity, but it had that real New Zealand flavour. And if you’re a New Zealander you recognize it profoundly in Died in the Wool and Colour Scheme and some of those amazing stories that speak to New Zealanders in a very personal more intimate way. Using that same genre which is amazing. And it was special to have here among that you know the kind of pantheon really of great writers of the genre and do that and achieve that from New Zealand which was much more difficult.
Caroline: And achieve she did — Ngaio’s publishers kept her to a tight schedule, and she often produced a book a year. She travelled back to London every so often too, and each time she said she felt refreshed and renewed, and felt she had to start writing again as soon as she arrived. In 1949, she experienced something very rare for a writer of any kind, when one million copies of her books were issued into the international market in the same year — 100,000 copies each of ten different novels.
At the same time as her public career was going from strength to strength, Ngaio’s private life remained as much of a closed book as ever. She remained single — or a “spinster”, as the parlance of the day would have it — and devoted much of her time to her close female friends, some of whom she knew from going to school in Christchurch, others from university or her work in the theatre. Over the years, as a result of this closeness, there have been many suggestions that Ngaio Marsh was a lesbian, or at least not completely heterosexual. But like the canny crime writer that she was, Ngaio didn’t make it easy for people to find out her secrets. Here’s Joanne Drayton again:
Joanne: I think also there’s no doubt about the fact that she had very close personal relationships with women. In terms of really hard evidence you’re right though there’s not a lot of facts absolute facts that can be tested. They say two or three sources is a piece of information that you can use and you certainly don’t get that sort of thing around Ngaio Marsh. She was very careful about cleaning out behind her. And it depends on how you define lesbianism with you. I mean most people these days don’t necessarily see a physical relationship is defining it but it does also and it does depend on how you what you bring to this situation as your own definitions. So I could never guarantee that I match sleep with other women but what I can guarantee is that her most significant friends were women right.
Caroline: Ngaio was private, yes, but she wasn’t above hiding in plain sight.
Joanne: And you know I think I think there were there were people that often often traveled with her sometimes not not not when it was it was actually almost secretly they traveled with her overseas. People didn’t know about it. I found photographs of people that weren’t even identified as being as traveling with her that I knew were close friends of his. But she kept. You know she played her cards very close to a chest.
Caroline: She even had one particular friend who lived right next door to the Marsh family home in Cashmere.
Joanne: She had a very close friend called Sylvia Fox who eventually moved into the house behind her. There was a hedge with a connecting hole. So they used to dash into each other’s houses through this hedge between them and Sylvia Fox was went to school with her in Christchurch and they were just long term very old and close friends right throughout their life and are buried together.
Caroline: For a long time, Joanne says, Ngaio Marsh was just written off as the classic spinster author, who lived out her days alone. But even though Ngaio clearly didn’t want the world to know what her life was really like, we’re now able to think of her as a much more complex person.
Joanne: I think that you know what’s previously been written has been written particularly from a really traditionally heterosexual position because defining relationships as either you are either heterosexual or you’re not. It’s sexual and you’re either with a man or you know you have a man in your life. We don’t. Whereas I think we know now we’re prepared to see people as more complex than that and see sexuality as more fluid and end complex [00:25:50][33.8]
Caroline: There’s so much more to say about Ngaio Marsh — I’ve really only scratched the surface here. As well as being a prolific detective author, she was a keen painter and a revered theatre director who did a huge amount to establish and develop the theatrical tradition and profession in New Zealand. But hopefully I’ve been able to say enough to whet your appetite and intrigue you about her, this women whose name is so often lumped together with the other so-called Queens of Crime, but who in reality lived such a different and intriguingly complex life. I find her endlessly fascinating. Like all the best detective novelists, she kept her secrets very, very well.
This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about today’s contributors Joanne Drayton, plus links to all the books mentioned, in the show notes for this episode at shedunnitshow.com/ngaiomarsh. There, you can also read a full transcript.
The sharp-eared among you will have noticed that for the very first time, this episode had advertising on it! Truly, this podcast is growing up and finding its place in the world. I am also going to be launching a system whereby you can get an ad free version of the show very soon though, so if that’s something that interests you, make sure you’re signed up to the Shedunnit newsletter at shedunnitshow.com/newsletter and then you’ll be the first to hear about it. My thanks to to everyone who has filled out the audience survey over the past few weeks, I honestly couldn’t be doing this without your help.
I’ll be back on 17 April with a new episode.
Next time on Shedunnit: Pseudonyms.