Now that we have covered the majority of Agatha Christie’s books, we move on to Christie’s contemporary Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982). Marsh wrote 32 novels, each featuring Roderick Alleyn (pronounced Allen), who starts out as Chief Detective Inspector in A Man Lay Deadand later gets promoted to chief superintendent of New Scotland Yard. The second son of a lord, Alleyn joins a new breed of “gentlemen detectives” after first spending several years in the diplomatic service. We learn in 1937’s Vintage Murder that Alleyn wrote the textbook used by police forces across the world, and we see him teaching the most promising detective students in the U.S. in 1968’s Clutch of Constables. The books tend to be character-driven, as the solution rests upon a knowledge of the people in the books. This contrasts a lot with the works of Agatha Christie, whose solutions rely more on plot devises instead of who the characters are.
One feature of this series that differs from most classic detective series is the way Alleyn ages and moves on with his life over the course of the 32 novels. He travels to New Zealand, Marsh’s home country, three different times for a total of four novels set in different parts of the country. During World War II, Alleyn ends up doing counterintelligence in New Zealand. Throughout the span of the series, Alleyn meets and marries England’s greatest painter, has a son with her, participates in a variety of different types of cases, travels around the world, and gets a promotion to Chief Superintendent, one of the highest positions at Scotland Yard.
While Marsh received numerous important honorary awards, such as the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1948 and the Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1966, she did not get these for her excellent writing. Rather, she almost single-handedly established live theater in her home country of New Zealand, performing all positions, including actress, writer, set designer, director, and producer. So her awards primarily honor her contributions to the field of theater. Besides loving writing and theater, Marsh also took a serious interest in painting but was not quite good enough to become a professional painter. So Marsh included her interests in theater and painting in her books, setting a few books, notably Enter a Murderer, Opening Night (released in the U.S. under the title of Night at the Vulcan), Death at the Dolphin (Killer Dolphin in the U.S.), and Light Thickens, her final book, in the realm of the theater. Further, several more, such as Vintage Murder, Final Curtain, and False Scent take place amid the world of actors. In addition to actors, we also see painters, represented most noticeably in the character of Agatha Troy, considered Britain’s greatest painter, and whom Alleyn meets and marries.
So stay tuned these next 32 weeks as we cover each of Ngaio Marsh’s well-written novels and explore the development of the character of Alleyn and of Marsh’s writing itself.