A Man Lay Dead by Ngaio Marsh
A Man Lay Dead
by Ngaio Marsh (1934)

Ngaio (pronounced NIGH-oh) Marsh was a woman ahead of her time. Born Edith Ngaio Marsh in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1895, she displayed a fervent love of the arts. She was gifted and passionate with a paintbrush, and intended for sometime to become a professional artist. She also had talent for acting, writing and the theatre from early childhood. In fact, at St. Margaret's College, a school in Christchurch she attended from age 15-18, the school put on a production of The Moon Princess, a play Marsh wrote.

Marsh moved to England in her early thirties and had a brief flirtation with interior decorating, but the itch for the arts wouldn't let go. When she moved to New Zealand, her first novel followed soon after - A Man Lay Dead was published in 1934. It was the first step in a long and illustrious career that left Marsh holding her own among the finest mystery writers of all-time, often mentioned in the same breath as fellow female mystery greats such as Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendell and Dorothy L. Sayers.

Enter a Murderer by Ngaio Marsh
Enter a Murderer
by Ngaio Marsh (1935)
Like many mystery writers, Marsh created a famous recurring sleuth in her writing - in her case, gentleman detective hero of Scotland Yard, Roderick Alleyn. Marsh was very partial to Alleyn's narrative, and no wonder - Marsh based all 32 of her beloved detective novels around the policeman and his career; in essence, Marsh and Alleyn spent 48 years together, from 1934 when A Man Lay Dead was published, until the publication of The Light Thickens, her last novel, in 1982.

Marsh was quite prolific, and while she was by far most famous for her mystery novels, she also published several short stories and three books of non-fiction, including her own autobiography. Black Beech and Honeydew, which was published in 1965, came as a surprise to some, as Marsh famously guarded her privacy. She never married and had a preference toward more typically masculine style and sensibilities, leading to widespread speculation about her sexuality and personal life.

Marsh's commitment to the arts, both in terms of writing and theater participation remained an anchor throughout her life; her enthusiasm for theater made her something of a national hero in New Zealand. She often divided her time between New Zealand and England - she was a fervent Anglophile and lover of the British countryside. The vast majority of her books are set in England. In 1948, Marsh was given the Order of the British Empire, followed by being made a Dame of the British Empire in 1966, putting her in the excellent company of Margaret Drabble, Judi Dench, Iris Murdoch and Julie Andrews, to name a few. Not too shabby.

 

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