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       Collected Short Fiction of Ngaio Marsh, p.1

           Ngaio Marsh
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Collected Short Fiction of Ngaio Marsh

  Collected Short Fiction of Ngaio Marsh

  Ngaio Marsh

  Essays and short stories of Ngaio Marsh, edited and with introduction by Douglas G. Greene

  The Collected Short Fiction

  of Ngaio Marsh


  Literate. Polished. Witty. Urbane. These words describe the traditional English mystery and, above all, the novels of Dame Ngaio Marsh (1899-1982). Paradoxically, Marsh was born and reared far from England and had little interest in detective fiction as a form. “These are not the sort of books I buy to read,” she said of the works of other mystery novelists. Her real interests were painting and the theater. But perhaps all of this is not so surprising: she brought to her writing the clearsightedness of an outsider—an outsider who could view a scene as a painter and plot with the dramatic sense of a playwright.

  Edith Ngaio Marsh was born in Christchurch, New Zealand. Her father came from England, but her mother was from a family that was basically colonial, having come to New Zealand by way of the West Indies. Marsh explained to an interviewer many years later that in New Zealand European children often receive native names, and Ngaio — the name by which she was known all her life — can mean either “light on the water” or “little tree bug” in the Maori language. Other sources say that it is the name of a native flowering tree. Whatever the case, Marsh found whenever she was outside New Zealand that her name was constantly mispronounced “Ner-gy-oh,” rather than the correct “Nye-oh.” At the age of fifteen, she entered art school and planned a career as a painter. While a student, she attended a performance of Allan Wilkie’s Shakespeare Company, and sent him a playscript called The Medallion. Wilkie did not produce the play, but he was so impressed that for two years Marsh worked for his company.

  In 1928 when she was almost thirty, Marsh went to London with friends around whom she would base the Lampreys, a family that would be featured in many of her stories. For a while, she wrote syndicated articles for publication back in New Zealand and, as she later recalled, began “to develop some appreciation, at least, for cadence and the balance of words.” She and one of the Lampreys decided to open a shop called Touch and Go to sell various handcrafts — decorated trays, bowls, lampshades, and even “funny rhymes for bathroom and lavatory doors.”

  While trying to keep the shop going, Marsh filled in odd moments in writing her first book, a detective novel called A Man Lay Dead. Details of its composition and the invention of Inspector Roderick Alleyn are given in Marsh’s essay, “Roderick Alleyn,” which begins this book. Shortly after finishing the manuscript, she had to return to New Zealand to attend her mother’s ultimately fatal illness, but her English agent arranged for the book to be published in 1934. In later years, Marsh grew disenchanted with A Man Lay Dead. In her autobiography, Black Beech and Honeydew, she remarked that “I don’t think that before or since… I have ever written with less trouble and certainly with less distinction.”

  “It wasn’t very good,” she said to an interviewer, “and sometimes [I] wish it could be withdrawn. I don’t like the title even. It sounds awfully like ‘A Man-Laid Egg.’ ” To modern readers Alleyn seems something of a twit on his first appearance, as is evident from his very first words: “You’ve guessed my boyish secret. I’ve been given a murder to solve—aren’t I a lucky little detective?” And the solution—involving the murderer sliding down a bannister toward the victim—does not have the subtlety of her later books. Enter a Murderer (1935), written in New Zealand while Marsh was keeping house for her father, was a marked improvement, perhaps because it was based on her first love, the theater, but Alleyn still talks like one of the “bright young things” of the 1920s. His first words in this book are: “Perhaps he knew me. I’m as famous as anything, you know… An actor in his dressing-room will thrill me to mincement. I shall sit and goggle at him, I promise you.” Though in each successive book Marsh gradually deepened his character, Alleyn does not become truly believable until he meets his future wife, the painter Agatha Troy, in Artists in Crime (1938).

  Marsh said that she got the idea of writing a detective story while reading a novel by Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers. I suspect it was one of Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey novels, for Sayers’s influence is manifest throughout Marsh’s early books. Sayers had developed a formula that soon was used by many other writers. Her cases are solved by Lord Peter Wimsey, an aristocratic amateur sleuth who collects books and who fills his talk with obscure quotations. He is assisted by his man, Bunter, and by Inspector Parker, a competent but unimaginative Scotland Yard official. Other writers who used the bright amateur/stolid professional combination included Miles Burton, Max Afford, Rupert Penny, Margery Allingham, John Dickson Carr, Ianthe Jerrold, and H. C. Bailey. Ngaio Marsh varied the formula, but only slightly. Roderick Alleyn is a professional, but he begins as a literary cousin to Lord Peter. Alleyn is the scion of an old aristocratic family, and his mother, Lady Alleyn, seems almost a clone of Lord Peter’s mother, the Dowager Duchess of Denver. Even in Marsh’s middle-period novels, such as A Wreath for Rivera (1949), Alleyn addresses his assistant, Inspector Fox, in Wimsey-like language: “Fox, my cabbage, my rare edition, my objet d’art, my own especial bit of bijouterie.” Fox himself is not only much like Parker and other Scotland Yard detectives who assist aristocratic sleuths, but he also shares some characteristics with Wimsey’s servant, Bunter. He is especially good at obtaining information below stairs, in the servants’ quarters. And like Wimsey, Alleyn falls in love with a suspect in one of his cases and marries her in a later novel.

  Whenever the matter came up, Marsh said that she did not follow Sayers in falling in love with her detective. I think that she did. Or at any rate, she identified with Alleyn’s wife: “People who know me very well see me in her. Agatha Troy’s tastes are mine and of course she’s a painter and I started off as a painter.” And viewing Alleyn through Troy’s eyes made him much less the effete aristocrat that he often seemed to be in the early novels. By the time that Marsh brought him to New Zealand to help the local authorities in Colour Scheme (1943) and Died in the Wool (1945), Alleyn has gained sensitivity and sympathy. Though he may have emerged from Lord Peter Wimsey, he had become the spiritual ancestor of Ruth Rendell’s Wexford and P. D. James’s Dalgliesh.

  The fact that Alleyn is a policeman has led some scholars to write that “in most cases he relies on routine police procedure.” In fact, although Alleyn has fingerprint experts and photographers who investigate the scene of the crime, technical matters are rarely described and the solutions are almost never discovered by such means. Marsh’s books are part of the Golden Age tradition, in which crimes are solved by clues given to the reader and the murders are frequently bizarre. In Marsh’s books, bodies are hidden in bales of wool, and victims are dispatched by guns lurking inside pianos, by lethal wine bottles, and by poisoned darts. Although not particularly interested in the form of detective fiction, she nonetheless followed it almost religiously. She explained that “the mechanics in a detective novel may be shamelessly contrived but the writing need not be so nor, with one exception, need the characterisation. About the guilty person, of course, endless duplicity is practised.” In 1981, I wrote to Ngaio Marsh about research I was doing into the life of another mystery novelist. I received a friendly letter in which—as an aside—she mentioned that “at the moment I am deeply involved with a very elaborate case that I have funked until now. It has become more and more elaborate and the unknotting of clues has never been one of my talents.” Some current writers who share Marsh’s difficulties in handling clues have solved the problem by ignoring clues altogether. It says much for Marsh’s adherence to the form that
she was willing to struggle with clueing, and she produced books as well structured and as fair to the reader as any of the Golden Age.

  Much has been made of the influence of the stage on Marsh’s detective stories. Many of her novels are centered on a theatrical company, including Enter a Murderer (1935), Vintage Murder (1937), Night at the Vulcan (1951), Killer Dolphin (1966), and Light Thickens (1982); and some of her nontheatrical novels, such as Death at the Bar (1940), feature actors as major characters. More significantly, Marsh sets a scene much in the way of a playwright. In the interviews that play so large a part in Alleyn’s investigations, she clearly visualizes where each character is standing or sitting in relation to the props—the furniture and other objects in the room. Her painter’s eye is also involved, for she describes the setting vividly yet without making it more than the backdrop for the people. Some scholars go even further. LeRoy Panek, in Watteau’s Shepherds, The Detective Novel in Britain (1979), analyzes the structure of her novels according to the Aristotelian rules for Greek drama. If this is going too far, there is no denying that she creates her stories with a feeling for dramatic interest, for placing of the climax, and for directing her characters in a way that is more the style of a playwright than a novelist. Although there are exceptions, we learn about Marsh’s characters not by what they tell us of themselves— the soliloquy had gone out of fashion by the time that Marsh began to write—but by how they relate to one another. In short, Marsh treats the reader as though he or she were a part of an audience at a play.

  Marsh’s stories are related to a specific kind of play, the comedy of manners. The best works in this form are written by people who are in one way or another outsiders. As a New Zealander, Ngaio Marsh did not think—as Christie sometimes did—that the English class structure was the best of all possible worlds. I think that Death in a White Tie (1938) is the best of her early books, not because of the crime and solution but because of its sensitive discussion of the social expectations that produced the “season” of debutante balls. In the novel, poor but presentable women are hired to sponsor girls, including one who has an unhappy time in entering what amounts to a marriage market. Marsh comments that “she was not so very plain but only rather disastrously uneventful.” Troy sums up the situation: “There’s something so blasted cruel and barbaric about this season game.” Another character, one who approves of the system, also gains an insight into what it really means:

  It took [Lord Robert] some time to get round the ballroom and as he edged past dancing couples and over the feet of sitting chaperones he suddenly felt as if an intruder had thrust open all the windows of this neat little world and let in a flood of uncompromising light. In this cruel light he saw the people he liked best and they were changed and belittled… He was plunged into a violent depression that had a sort of nightmareish quality. How many of these women were what he still thought of as “virtuous?” And the debutantes? They had gone back to chaperones and were guided and guarded by women, many of whose private lives would look ugly in this flood of hard light that had been let in on Lord Robert’s world. The girls were sheltered by a convention for three months but at the same time they heard all sorts of things that would have horrified and bewildered his sister Mildred at their age. And he wondered if the Victorian and Edwardian eras had been no more than freakish incidents in the history of society and if their proprieties had been as artificial as the paint on a modern woman’s lips. This idea seemed abominable to Lord Robert and he felt old and lonely for the first time in his life.

  Those who argue that the detective story had to give way to the crime novel sometimes say that the classical, fair-play form did not allow commentary on society or on people. The above passage shows that it is less the form than the talent of the writer that makes for insights.

  This volume contains all of Ngaio Marsh’s known uncollected fiction as well as a few related pieces. Following Marsh’s essays on the creations of Roderick and Troy Alleyn, the book reprints the three short stories about Alleyn originally published in periodicals over the space of thirty-four years. “Death on the Air,” which first appeared in a British magazine in 1939, is a typical closed-circle detective story of the period with a clever murder device and a cleverly hidden murderer. “I Can Find My Way Out,” published in 1946, is Marsh’s only short story with a theatrical setting, and it contains her bow to one of the most famous detectival plot devices, murder in a locked room. “Chapter and Verse,” from 1973, has a plot that could easily have been expanded into a full-length novel, and like the previous story is redolent of the Golden Age of Detection. The remaining tales are urbane studies of crime. The short-short “The Hand in the Sand” (1953) is Marsh’s only venture into writing about true crime. “The Cupid Mirror” (1972) and “A Fool About Money” (1974) are completely different from each other except in one way—they conclude with a victory over a totally exasperating person. “Morepork” (1978), Marsh’s final and probably best short story, tells of an odd trial in the forests of New Zealand. The book concludes with Evil Liver, a previously unpublished telescript produced in 1975, in which the viewer (or reader) must act as detective.

  In assembling this book, I have become indebted to many people: Robert C. S. Adey, Margaret Lewis, Barry Pike, and Collin Southern helped to locate material. I am also grateful to Tony Medawar, researcher extraordinaire, whose investigation into the production of Evil Liver was invaluable. Granada Television Limited kindly allowed us to print Marsh’s telescript. Phyllis Westberg of the Harold Ober Company, American agents for the Marsh estate, was unfailingly helpful. Publishers normally are expected to act only as publishers, but Hugh Abramson of International Polygonics took a personal interest in this work and the result is a far better book than the editor could have produced alone.

  Douglas G. Greene

  Norfolk, Virginia

  April 1989


  Roderick Alleyn

  He was born with the rank of Detective-Inspector, C.I.D., on a very wet Saturday afternoon in a basement flat off Sloane Square, in London. The year was 1931.

  All day, rain splashed up from the feet of passersby going to and fro, at eye-level, outside my water-streaked windows. It fanned out from under the tires of cars, cascaded down the steps to my door and flooded the area. “Remorseless” was the word for it and its sound was, beyond all expression, dreary. In view of what was about to take place, the setting was, in fact, almost too good to be true.

  I read a detective story borrowed from a dim little lending-library in a stationer’s shop across the way. Either a Christie or a Sayers, I think it was. By four o’clock, when the afternoon was already darkening, I had finished it, and still the rain came down. I remember that I made up the London coal-fire of those days and looked down at it, idly wondering if I had it in me to write something in the genre. That was the season, in England, when the Murder Game was popular at weekend parties. Someone was slipped a card saying he or she was the “murderer.” He or she then chose a moment to select a “victim,” and there was a subsequent “trial.” I thought it might be an idea for a whodunit—they were already called that—if a real corpse was found instead of a phony one. Luckily for me, as it turned out, I wasn’t aware until much later that a French practitioner had been struck with the same notion.

  I played about with this idea. I tinkered with the fire and with an emergent character who might have been engendered in its sulky entrails: a solver of crimes.

  The room had grown quite dark when I pulled on a mackintosh, took an umbrella, plunged up the basement steps and beat my way through rain-fractured lamplight to the stationer’s shop. It smelt of damp newsprint, cheap magazines, and wet people. I bought six exercise books, a pencil and pencil sharpener and splashed back to the flat.

  Then with an odd sensation of giving myself some sort of treat, I thought more specifically about the character who already had begun to take shape.

  In the crime fiction of that time, the solver was often
a person of more-or-less eccentric habit with a collection of easily identifiable mannerisms. This, of course, was in the tradition of Sherlock Holmes. Agatha Christie’s splendid M. Poirot had his moustaches, his passion for orderly arrangements, his frequent references to “grey cells.” Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey could be, as I now am inclined to think, excruciatingly facetious. Nice Reggie Fortune said—and author H. C. Bailey had him say it very often— “My dear chap! Oh, my dear chap!” and across the Atlantic there was Philo Vance, who spoke a strange language that his author, S. S. Van Dine, had the nerve to attribute, in part, to Balliol College, Oxford.

  Faced with this assembly of celebrated eccentrics, I decided, on that long-distant wet afternoon, that my best chance lay in comparative normality: in the invention of a man with a background resembling that of the friends I had made in England, and that I had better not tie mannerisms, like labels, round his neck. (I can see now that with my earlier books I did not altogether succeed in this respect.)

  I thought that my detective would be a professional policeman but, in some ways, atypical: an attractive, civilized man with whom it would be pleasant to talk but much less pleasant to fall out.

  He began to solidify.

  From the beginning I discovered that I knew quite a lot about him. Indeed, I rather think that, even if I had not fallen so casually into the practice of crime-writing and had taken to a more serious form, he would still have arrived and found himself in an altogether different setting.

  He was tall and thin with an accidental elegance about him and fastidious enough to make one wonder at his choice of profession. He was a compassionate man. He had a cockeyed sense of humor, dependent largely upon understatement, but for all his unemphatic, rather apologetic ways, he could be a formidable person of considerable authority. As for his background, that settled itself there and then: he was a younger son of a Buckinghamshire family and had his schooling at Eton. His elder brother, whom he regarded as a bit of an ass, was a diplomatist, and his mother, whom he liked, a lady of character.

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