Death on the Air

Death on the Air and Other Stories
Ngaio Marsh


What was so special about Ngaio Marsh? For a start she was one of the select band of female writers – those so-called ‘Queens of Crime' – who dominated the world of the classical detective story in its heyday during the first half of the century. Yet unlike her rivals, writing was never her first love; she trained as a painter and later devoted herself to the theatre. In addition she was a New Zealander who, although a devoted Anglophile, was able to write about English life from the standpoint of a spectator – and the onlooker, as the well-known saying goes, sees most of the game.

This unusual background suffuses her work and sets her apart from her famous contemporaries. She writes better than Agatha Christie, and unlike Dorothy Sayers Ngaio Marsh never commits the sin of falling in love with her detective and lapsing into sentimentality. An elegant, disciplined writer, Marsh deserves to be read and reread not just for her plots but for her characterization, for her painter's eye view and for her outsider's insights into the heart of a vanished social world. But most important of all, her books provide such satisfying entertainment; amusing and civilized but with an underlying sensitivity and compassion, they bring grace to a genre not noted for emotional depth. Ngaio Marsh was not just a manufacturer of literary crossword puzzles. She was a supremely readable storyteller who time and again compelled the reader to race eagerly onwards to the final page.

An only child, she was born in a suburb of Christchurch,
New Zealand, in 1895. Her father was a bank clerk who had emigrated from England seven years earlier, and when she was still small, the family moved to a newly-built house in the Cashmere Hills outside the city. This was to be Marsh's home for the rest of her life, for although she was striking in her appearance and popular with her contemporaries, a certain deep-seated shyness and the death in the First War of a young man who was special to her ensured that she never married.

Her ability to write well was recognized at school, but her primary talent at that time lay elsewhere, and at the Canterbury College School of Art she won a number of prizes and scholarships. Meanwhile her interest in the theatre had been kindled, and in her twenties she somehow found the time to pursue all three of her talents: living at home with her parents she devoted herself to painting, but she was also earning money writing articles for one of the Christchurch newspapers, and when she was in her mid-twenties she had an unexpected invitation to join a touring company as an actress. However, she was always more interested in what went on behind the scenes at a theatre, and in later life she turned not to acting but to producing and directing.

Gradually she began to feel that painting was not the medium which fully satisfied her, and amidst the restlessness which must have accompanied this realization, she welcomed the chance to go to England for the first time. She was thirty-three. The friends who had invited her to stay were English aristocrats who had earlier returned home after many years in New Zealand, and it was Marsh's experience of their social milieu which provided the background for some of her most successful novels. It is often said that her books are riddled with snobbery, but England between the Wars was still a snobbish and class-ridden society. It is a mistake to look back at those times through the lens of a more egalitarian era and make anachronistic judgements. Marsh was writing about what she had seen and experienced. She was trying to reflect reality, not to peddle politically correct dogma.

The visit to England proved to be the most liberating experience and enabled her to develop a stylish, sophisticated persona which was different from but not at odds with her New Zealand self. She stayed for over three years and afterwards returned regularly for visits, but this divided life was not without its difficulties. It is hard to be drawn simultaneously to two cultures, hard to maintain a unity of personality when one is at heart torn in two, and the inevitable tensions are reflected in her writing. She wrote of both England and New Zealand, but as New Zealand claimed an increasing amount of her time, her memories of English life in the past became more reliable than her knowledge of English life in the present – with the result that her final novels with English settings appear marooned in a time-warp. It is a measure of her talent that despite this flaw the last novels are still immensely enjoyable.

During that first long visit to London, which lasted from the end of 1928 to the summer of 1932, she continued her career in journalism, but a visit from her mother, always an authoritative figure in Marsh's life, resulted in an attempt to write more seriously. A novel was begun, a murder story to suit the current literary fashion, and in 1931 Marsh's famous detective Roderick Alleyn finally made his entry on to the blank page.

In her early books Marsh is clearly feeling her way as a novelist, so the Alleyn of her first mystery,
A Man Lay Dead
, is merely an effete, pale version of the man he later became. Douglas G Greene, the American expert on crime and mystery fiction, puts this well when he writes that though Alleyn might have emerged from Lord Peter Wimsey, he became ‘the spiritual ancestor' of P D James's Adam Dalgleish. Fortunately Alleyn developed with speed, and in
Artists in Crime
, published in 1938, Marsh moved into top gear as a crime writer. In this novel Alleyn meets his future wife, Troy, and in the next novel,
Death in a White Tie
, he wins her. For the next twenty years after this classic pair of novels, Marsh is at her zenith, and even the fading of her powers is marked by
outbursts of her old brilliance, notably in
Black as he's Painted
, published in 1974. Her penultimate novel,
, finally does justice to the beauty of her native land, where she was to die in 1982 at the age of eighty-six.

Every Marsh novel features Alleyn, and as one looks back at her literary career it is hard not to wonder why she never moved on from writing mysteries to writing novels where there was no murder. It would seem she had no wish to move on; it was as though she could never quite summon the energy to break through into a different territory. She certainly had the ability to do so, and in some of her best novels, such as
Opening Night
, the crime is long delayed, as if the format had become an unwanted necessity. Perhaps this lack of will to move beyond the genre arose because writing was only the second string to her bow and because as she journeyed through middle age so much of her creative energy was channelled into the theatre. Almost single-handedly she generated interest in classical drama in New Zealand and was responsible for many outstanding productions. She was also involved in the creation of a new theatre which was eventually named after her, and in 1966 she was awarded a DBE for all her work in this field. Since she was so innovative in her theatrical career, is it really surprising that she avoided innovation whenever she retired to the typewriter? Alleyn was the good friend who provided stability and familiarity, but her heart belonged to Shakespeare, that glittering master who kept her constantly seeking new adventures.

It can in fact be argued that Ngaio Marsh's problem was not that she was untalented but that she was too talented. Her painting, her writing and her theatrical career were all jostling for pride of place in her life, and the miracle was that she found the time and energy to excel in all three fields. In addition to the prizes she won at art school in her youth and to the DBE bestowed upon her in old age, she was made a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America in recognition of her literary achievements, and it is because of her status as a
crime writer that this present book,
Death on the Air and Other Stories
is being published.

But the collection is not only essential reading for aficionados. It will also, I believe, serve as an appetizer for those who have never read her novels. The first two essays, one on Roderick Alleyn and one on his wife Troy, provide the perfect introduction to her hero and heroine. Marsh's humour, her civilized grace, her sensitive intelligence – all are present here in these two lightly etched but intriguing portraits. They are followed by a most diverse sequence of items:
I Can Find My Way Out
is an example in miniature of the theatre mysteries in which she excelled, and there are echoes of the novels
Opening Night
Death at the Dolphin;
Chapter and Verse: The Little Copplestone Mystery
is an example in miniature of the English village murder story which Marsh explored at length in
Overture to Death
Off with his Head
Grave Mistake;
, perhaps the strongest short story in the book, provides a taste of the novels set in New Zealand,
Vintage Murder
Colour Scheme
Died in the Wool
. Moving on from the miniatures, admirers of the classical murder puzzle may prefer
Death on the Air
, but my own favourite in this book is the television script
Evil Liver
. Written in the 1970s for the series
Crown Court
, this work shows more clearly than any of the short stories Marsh's gift for characterization by means of dialogue.

So we have here a literary smorgasbord, little slivers of Ngaio Marsh's creativity, signs which point beyond themselves to the novels which made her literary reputation. For the aficionados the book is a delicious feast which will stimulate all manner of nostalgic memories (note the use of those two unusual names Hersey and Caley – remember Lady Hersey Amblington in
Death and the Dancing Footman
and Caley Bard in
Clutch of Constables
?) and for the newcomers the book is a seductive starter, hinting at luscious treats to come.

Speaking for myself, I confess that the book reminds me of how much I owe to her. I began to write crime novels when I
was seventeen, and I was inspired to do so after reading Ngaio Marsh. My first published book was a mystery and I wrote five more before moving on to write novels which fell outside the genre. Even now, thirty years after my early struggles, I can look at my current work, a series of novels about the Church of England in the twentieth century, and still see traces of Marsh's influence on me. It was she who taught me to divide my chapters into sub-chapters which would be more easily digested by the reader. It was she who taught me the importance of ending every chapter with a cliff hanger and every sub-chapter with a sentence designed to lure the reader on. It was she who taught me how to mesh prose and dialogue in a seamless narration, to view characters sensitively but without sentimentality and to keep melodrama at bay with injections of humour. I admired her unpretentious prose, her skill in wasting no words, her painter's eye, her dramatist's sense of timing. I liked her people, even her murderers (the nicest murderer is in
When in Rome
) and I was enthralled by the realistic glimpses she gave me into the vanished world of the 1930s which the second world war destroyed but which still lived on so vividly in the memories of those who brought me up. My all-time Marsh favourite,
Death in a White Tie
, magically conjures up that doom-laden glitter of the London Season as the 1930s drew to their disastrous close.

Other books

The October Killings by Wessel Ebersohn
The Visitors by Sally Beauman
Kindertransport by Olga Levy Drucker
Ghosts in the Morning by Will Thurmann
Time Off for Good Behavior by Lani Diane Rich
The Mating Game: Big Bad Wolf by Georgette St. Clair
The Twelve Crimes of Christmas by Martin H. Greenberg et al (Ed)
A Midsummer's Sin by Natasha Blackthorne Copyright 2016 - 2022