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Ngaio Marsh: Her life in Crime by Joanne Drayton


This is the perfect biography for anyone unfamiliar with the life of Ngaio Marsh, or if you want to know more about the plots of her 32 crime novels written between 1934 and 1982.


The writing of each novel is woven into the narrative of Ngaio’s life, along with just enough detail about the plot. Especially rewarding was that Joanne Drayton managed to capture much of the contemporary critical response to each book. Not only from Ngaio’s native New Zealand but also from London and New York. Reading her crime stories now they can feel very dated, so it is fascinating to hear what contemporaries thought of them. The book reveals that like any writer, Ngaio was always full of self doubt about her own talents.

I was very struck by just how busy and industrious Ngaio was throughout her life. If she wasn’t writing a crime thriller she was casting and directing a play, giving an interview or a talk, or even writing a play. She loved to travel, and used many of her experiences as settings and scenes in her books. She would watch people and her great skill was to catch something of their character and personality in her written cameos.


In 1966 she wrote an autobiography ‘Black Beech and Honeydew’ which is quoted regularly throughout this book, but even at the time readers saw that it gave few details of the person behind all the achievements. It said almost nothing about the people Ngaio loved and some of her closest friends didn’t even feature. She was an intensely private person, shy but also very loyal to her closest friends. Towards the end of life all her personal papers, photographs and theatre programmes were burnt, anything that might have given a glimpse behind the professional persona. When she travelled abroad, often for several months at a time she would rent out her home to friends or acquaintances and clear the house of all but her most treasured possessions. This also took a toll on what remains for the biographer. She met so many famous people, such as Laurence Olivier and his wife Vivian Leigh when they came to New Zealand, novelist J B Priestly was a friend, film director John Schlesinger performed in one of her plays, as did Sam Neill at the start of his acting career. She mixed with stars as well as artists and writers, seemingly at ease with all of them.


Ngaio had a great love of England, and was always very at home in London, favouring an area around Knightsbridge to find a small house or a flat to rent during her visits. She hated to fly and so would travel to England on a variety of ships, some more glamorous than others. On one trip the water taken on board for the passengers was polluted and all spent their first weeks with stomach bugs. Such events were not isolated incidents. While this mode of travel gave her time to work on her books, the distance from her publisher in London was also a hindrance in the early years, as manuscripts would take weeks to pass between London and Christchurch.


This is a book rich with little details and the minutiae of life. Many of the details are lost, but there are enough to form a picture of a kind, generous woman who really did live life to the full. She has rightly given her name to our national crime writing prize.


Reviewer: Marcus Hobson

HarperCollins, RRP $29.99

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