The Book Nook Is Detecting the Detectives (8/16)

Welcome to the Book Nook! The weekly thread for all book nerds on The Avocado. This is the place to talk about books you’re currently reading, discuss genres, ask for recommendations, and post serious literary criticism.

Posting pictures is fine as long as they are book related, but I would like this thread to continue to be a NO GIF/YouTube/social media embed zone as much as possible. Thanks, and happy posting!

This week’s prompt: The subject of today’s short biography wrote several detective novels. Even if you’re not a fan of the traditional detective story, the form has become so ubiquitous and has been crosspollinated with so many other genres that everybody has read at least one. Are you a fan of detective stories? If not, why not, and are there exceptions? If you are, what do you like about them and what are your favorites?

If you would like to contribute a short (two to four paragraph) book related biography, essay, tone poem, whatever, for the header, please let me know. The topic choice is wide open, as long as it pertains to books or writing.

Dame Ngaio Marsh

Ngaio Marsh was born in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1895. I’ve found conflicting versions of both the pronunciation and meaning of her first name, which is Māori in origin, but the most popular ones seem to be Nye-ow and a small flowering tree. Between 1934 and 1982 she wrote 32 detective novels, all of which feature Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn of Scotland Yard (he managed to find his way to New Zealand a few times). Dame Ngaio took the gentleman detective story and neatly solved its central problem of why a member of the nobility would be allowed to hang out with the police and solve murders by combining the two: Alleyn is the younger brother of a lord.

As far as I can tell her books are currently out of print, but in her day, they were extremely popular and sold millions of copies (which means it’s easy to find cheap used copies). Dame Ngaio’s first book, A Man Lay Dead, was, by her own admission, not very good, but after that the series is known for its consistent quality. Along with Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham she was dubbed one of the “Queens of Crime.” Refreshingly liberal for her time, she was opposed to racism and the death penalty, and on occasion used Alleyn as a mouthpiece for her views. Dame Ngaio despised her fellow “Queen” Dorothy L. Sayers, who she considered a bigot (she also subscribed to the school of thought that Sayers fell in love with her own creation, Lord Peter Whimsey, and based the character of Whimsey’s love interest Harriet Vane on herself, so that Sayers could, in effect, marry her own detective!)

Multiple Roderick Alleyn books are set in theaters, which makes sense because theater was Dame Ngaio’s first love, and it was actually for her work in this area that she was given a title. At a time when New Zealand had very little in the way of theater, professional or otherwise, she became involved in amateur theatrics and in the 1940s she produced a modern dress version of Hamlet with the University of Canterbury Drama Society that was so acclaimed that it toured New Zealand and Australia. She tirelessly advocated for theater programs and by the end of her lifetime New Zealand had a viable professional theater scene aided by government funding.

Ngaio Marsh died in 1982, at the age of 86, in Christchurch, shortly after completing her final Roderick Alleyn novel. Her house is now a museum. The Ngaio Marsh Awards (or Ngaios) are presented every year for the best in New Zealand mystery and thriller writing.

Ngaio Marsh as Hamlet