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Ngaio Marsh & Roderick Alleyn Mystery Titles
Internationally Marsh is best known for her creation of Inspector Roderick Alleyn, a gentleman detective who works for the Metropolitan Police (London). She has long been considered one of the four,”Queens of Crime” of the Golden Age of Mystery Fiction, alongside Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Margery Allingham. Oddly, though immensely popular in the U.K., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, she never seems to have been quite so famous in the US. I have met many American mystery fans over the years, who are not familiar with her work, but few in other English speaking countries.
Marsh was born in the city of Christchurch, New Zealand, where she also died. Her father neglected to register her birth until 1900 and there is some uncertainty about the date. She was the only child of Rose and bank clerk Henry Marsh, described by Marsh as “have-nots.” She was educated at St Margaret’s College in Christchurch, where she was one of the first students when the school was founded. She later studied painting at the Canterbury College (NZ) School of Art before joining the Allan Wilkie company as an actress and touring New Zealand. From 1928 she divided her time between living in New Zealand and in the United Kingdom.
Internationally she is best known for her 32 detective novels published between 1934 and 1982. Along with Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Agatha Christie, she has been classed as one of the four original “Queens of Crime”—female writers who dominated the crime fiction genre in the Golden Age of the 1920s and 1930s.
All her novels feature British CID detective Roderick Alleyn. Several novels feature Marsh’s other loves, the theatre and painting. A number are set around theatrical productions (Enter a Murderer, Vintage Murder, Overture to Death, Opening Night, Death at the Dolphin, and Light Thickens), and two others are about actors off stage (Final Curtain and False Scent). Her short story “‘I Can Find My Way Out” is also set around a theatrical production and is the earlier “Jupiter case” referred to in Opening Night. Alleyn marries a painter, Agatha Troy, whom he meets during an investigation (Artists in Crime), and who features in several later novels.
Most of the novels are set in England, but four are set in New Zealand, with Alleyn either on secondment to the New Zealand police (Colour Scheme, and Died in the Wool), or on holiday (Vintage Murder and Photo Finish); Surfeit of Lampreys begins in New Zealand but continues in London.
Marsh’s great passion was the theatre. In 1942 she produced a modern-dress Hamlet for the Canterbury University College Drama Society, the first of many Shakespearean productions with the society until 1969. In 1944, Hamlet and a production of Othello toured a theatre-starved New Zealand to rapturous acclaim. In 1949, assisted by entrepreneur Dan O’Connor, her student players toured Australia with a new version of Othello and Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. In the 1950s she was involved with the New Zealand Players, a relatively short-lived national professional touring repertory company. In 1972 she was invited by the Christchurch City Council to direct Shakespeare’s Henry V, the inaugural production for the opening of the newly constructed James Hay Theatre in Christchurch; she made the unusual choice of casting two male leads, who alternated on different nights.
She lived long enough to see New Zealand set up with a viable professional theatre industry with realistic Arts Council support, with many of her protégés to the forefront. The 430-seat Ngaio Marsh Theatre at the University of Canterbury is named in her honour. Her home on the Cashmere Hills is preserved as a museum.
Marsh never married, nor had children, and had close friendships with women “companions”, most notably her lifelong friend Sylvia Fox. Marsh also wore trousers and had a deep voice, but denied flatly that she was a lesbian throughout her life, according to her biographer Joanne Drayton. ‘I think Ngaio Marsh wanted the freedom of being who she was in a world, especially in a New Zealand that was still very conformist in its judgments of what constituted ‘decent jokers, good Shelias, and ‘weirdos’’,’ Roy Vaughan wrote after meeting her on a P&O Liner. In 1965 she published an autobiography, Black Beech and Honeydew. British author and publisher Margaret Lewis wrote an authorized biography, Ngaio Marsh, A Life in 1991. New Zealand art historian Joanne Drayton’s biography, Ngaio Marsh: Her Life in Crime was published in 2008.
Edited from Wikipedia: Ngaio Marsh
Note: If you are new to the Ngaio Marsh mysteries and want to collect the entire 32 volume series, by far the most economically editions to buy are the 11 volumes of the Inspector Alleyn 3-Book Collections, which sell for only slightly more than the price of a single novel. These volumes are now available in paperback and ebook editions, but may not help collectors who already have many of the Roderick Alleyn novels. See ‘3Book’ on all titles.
Roderick Alleyn Novels
Note: A very good first effort!
Sir Hubert Handesley’s extravagant weekend house-parties are deservedly famous for his exciting Murder Game. But when the lights go up this time, there is a real corpse with a real dagger in the back. All seven suspects have skilful alibis – so Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn has to figure out whodunit.
Note: Murder at The Unicorn
The first of Marsh’s famous theatrical mysteries. The crime scene is the stage of the Unicorn Theatre, when a prop gun fires a very real bullet; the victim an actor clawing his way to stardom using bribery instead of talent; and the suspects include two unwilling girlfriends and several relieved blackmail victims. The stage is set for one of Roderick Alleyn’s most baffling cases.
Note: An operation gone wrong
A Harley Street surgeon and his attractive nurse are almost too nervous to operate. Their patient is the Home Secretary – and they both have very good personal reasons to want him dead. The operation is a complete success – but he dies within hours, and Inspector Alleyn must find out why.
Note: Murder in The House of The Sacred Flame
Who slipped cyanide into the ceremonial wine of ecstasy at the House of the Sacred Flame? The other initiates and the High Priest claim to be above earthy passions. But Roderick Alleyn discovers that the victim had provoked lust and jealousy, and he suspects that more evil still lurks behind the Sign of the Sacred Flame.
Note: A deadly surprise In New Zealand
Inspector Roderick Alleyn has to date confined his investigations to England, but Vintage Murder finds him journeying to New Zealand (Ngaio Marsh’s homeland). Traveling with Alleyn are the members of the Carolyn Dacres English Comedy Company. The actors’ operatic intrigues offer an amusing diversion until, unexpectedly, they turn deadly. New Zealand theatrical manager, Alfred Meyer, is planning a surprise for his wife’s birthday – a jeroboam of champagne descending gently onto the stage after the performance. But, as Roderick Alleyn witnesses, something goes horribly wrong. Is the death the product of Maori superstitions – or something more down to earth?
Note: Introducing the future Mrs. Alleyn!
It starts as an art exercise – the knife under the drape, the pose outlined in chalk. But when Agatha Troy returns to her class, the scene has been re-enacted: the model is dead, fixed in the most dramatic pose Troy has ever seen. It’s a difficult case for Chief Detective Inspector Alleyn. Is the woman he loves really a murderess?
Note: Débutantes & Danger
The Season has begun. Débutantes and chaperones are planning their gala dinners – and a blackmailer is planning strategies to stalk his next victim. But Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn knows that something is up and has already planted his friend Lord Robert Gospell at the dinner. Unfortunately, someone else has got there first.
Note: A discordant note?
It was planned as an act of charity; a new piano for the parish hall, and an amusing evening’s entertainment to finance the gift. But all is doomed when Miss Campanula sits down to play. A chord is struck, a shot rings out, and Miss Campanula is dead. It seems to be a case of sinister infatuation to Roderick Alleyn, who also has his own romantic entanglements on his mind!
Note: Darts at The Plume & Feather
A midsummer evening – darts night at the Plume of Feathers, a traditional Devonshire public house. A distinguished painter, a celebrated actor, a woman graduate, a plump lady from County Clare and a local farmer all play their parts in a fatal experiment which calls for the investigative expertise of Inspector Alleyn, now a married man!
Note: A very odd family!
One of the best Marsh mysteries, though not all the critics agree! The Lampreys are a peculiar family. They entertain their guests with charades – like rich Uncle Gabriel, who was always such a bore. The Lampreys thought if they jollied him up he would bail them out of poverty again. But Uncle Gabriel meets a violent end, and Chief Inspector Alleyn has to work out which of them did the deed!
Note: A great puzzle plot!
Another of Marsh’s best! It begins as an entertainment: eight people, many of them adversaries, gathered for a winter weekend by a host with a love for theatre. It ends in snowbound disaster. Everyone has an alibi – and a motive as well. But Roderick Alleyn soon realizes that it all hangs on Thomas, the dancing footman. Also a pretty good locked room mystery.
Note: Alleyn back in New Zealand!
Alleyn is back in New Zealand, in yet another of Marsh’s best. It was a horrible death – lured into a pool of boiling mud and left to die. Roderick Alleyn, far from home on a wartime quest for enemy agents, knows that any number of people could have killed him: the English exiles he’d hated, the New Zealanders he’d despised, or the Maoris he’d insulted. Alleyn faces a tough investigation.
Note: At least she stayed warm!
P.D. James once noted that most of the best Ngaio Marsh mysteries are set in New Zealand, and she was not far from wrong. One summer evening in 1942 Flossie Rubrick, MP, one of the most formidable women in New Zealand, goes to her husband’s wool shed to rehearse a patriotic speech – and disappears. Three weeks later she turns up at an auction – packed inside one of her own bales of wool and very, very dead.
Note: Death of a famous actor
Just as Agatha Troy, the world famous painter, completes her portrait of Sir Henry Ancred, the Grand Old Man of the stage, the old actor dies. The dramatic circumstances of his death are such that Scotland Yard is called in – in the person of Troy’s long-absent husband, Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn.
Note: Jazz Age murder
The music rises to a climax, then Lord Pastern aims his revolver and fires. The figure in the spotlight falls – and the coup-de-théatre has become murder! Has the eccentric peer let hatred of his future son-in-law go too far? Or will a tangle of jealousies and blackmail reveal to Inspector Alleyn an altogether different solution?
Note: Another great Marsh theatre mystery!
Dreams of stardom lured Martyn Tarne from faraway New Zealand to a soul-destroying round of West End agents and managers in search of work. Now, driven by sheer necessity, she accepts the humble job of dresser to the Vulcan Theatre’s leading lady. But the eagerly awaited opening night brings a strange turn of the wheel of fortune – and sudden unforeseen death. Both a great Whodunnit and a locked room mystery!
Note: A Coven of Drug Dealers?
High in the mountains stands an historic Saracen fortress, home of the mysterious Mr Oberon, leader of a coven of witches. Roderick Alleyn, on holiday with his family, suspects that a huge drugs ring operates from within the castle. When someone else stumbles upon the secret, Mr Oberon decides his strange rituals require a human sacrifice.
Note: A fish to kill for?
The inhabitants of Swevenings are stirred only by a fierce competition to catch a monster trout known to dwell in their beautiful stream. Then one of their small community is found brutally murdered; beside him is their freshly killed trout. Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn’s murder investigation seems to be much more interested in the fish.
Note: A mock beheading turns real!
One of Marsh’s very best, but seldom reviewed. TheLockedRoomMystery.com, our sister site, has this book on its list ob books to be reviewed, as it is also a great impossible crime story.
When the pesky Anna Bünz arrives at Mardian to investigate local folk-dancing, she quickly antagonizes the villagers. But Mrs Bünz is not the only source of friction. When the sword dancers’ traditional mock beheading of the Winter Solstice becomes horribly real, Superintendent Roderick Alleyn finds himself faced with a complex case of gruesome proportions.
Note: A body covered with pearls and petals?
On a cold February London night, the police find a corpse on the quayside, her body covered with flower petals and pearls. The killer, who walked away singing, is known to be one of nine passengers on the cargo ship, Cape Farewell. Superintendent Roderick Alleyn joins the ship on the most difficult assignment of his career.
Note: Getting rid of a pest?
Another of Marsh’s great theatrical mysteries. Mary Bellamy, darling of the London stage, holds a 50th birthday party, a gala for everyone who loves her and fears her power. Then someone uses a deadly insect spray on Mary instead of the azaleas. The suspects, all very theatrically, are playing the part of mourners. Superintendent Alleyn has to find out which one played the murderer.
Note: April fool’s your dead!
April Fool’s Day was a roaring success for all, it seemed – except for poor Mr Cartell who ended up in the ditch – for ever. Then there was the case of Mr Percival Pyke Period’s letter of condolence, sent before the body was found – not to mention the family squabbles. It’s all a puzzling crime for Superintendent Alleyn.
Note: Miracle cures!
Times are good in the Cornish village of Portcarrow, as hundreds flock to taste the healing waters of Pixie Falls. When Miss Emily Pride inherits this celebrated land, she wants to put an end to the villagers’ exploitation of miracle cures, especially Miss Elspeth Cost’s gift shop. But someone puts an end to Miss Cost, and Roderick Alleyn finds himself quite literally on the spot.
Note: Can’t we all agree to use the original title?
Another great Marsh theatrical title. The bombed-out Dolphin Theatre is given to Peregrine Jay by a mysterious oil millionaire, who also gives him a glove that belonged to Shakespeare to display in the dockside theatre. But then a murder takes place, a boy is attacked, and the glove is stolen. Inspector Roderick Alleyn doesn’t think oil and water are a good mix.
Note: The Jampot?
According to Chief Superintendent Roderick Alleyn, ‘the Jampot’ is an international crook who regards murder as ‘tiresome and regrettable necessities’. But Alleyn’s wife Troy has shared close quarters with the Jampot on a pleasure cruise along the peaceful rivers of ‘Constable country’ and knows something is badly wrong even before the two murders on board.
Note: A Roman Tour
When their guide disappears mysteriously in the depths of a Roman Basilica, the members of Sebastian Mailer’s tour group seem strangely unperturbed. But when a body is discovered in an Etruscan sarcophagus, Superintendent Alleyn, in Rome on the trail of an international drug racket, is very much concerned.
Note: Santa Claus is dead?
When a much disliked visiting servant disappears without trace after playing Santa Claus, foul play is at once suspected – only suspicion falls not on the staff but on the unimpeachably respectable guests. When Superintendent Roderick Alleyn returns unexpectedly from a trip overseas, it is to find his beloved wife in the thick of an intriguing mystery.
Note: High security fail!
Called in to help with security arrangements for a presidential reception at a London embassy, Chief Superintendent Alleyn ensures the house and grounds are stiff with police. Nevertheless, an assassin strikes, and Alleyn finds no shortage of help, from Special Branch to a tribal court – and a small black cat named Lucy Lockett.
Note: Alleyn’s son in peril!
Young Rickie Alleyn has come to the Channel Islands to write, but village life seems tedious – until he finds the stablehand in a ditch, dead from an unlucky jump. But Rickie notices something strange and his father, Chief Superintendent Roderick Alleyn, is discreetly summoned to the scene, when Rickie disappears.
Note: Not her best!
With two husbands dead, a daughter marrying the wrong man and a debilitating disease, it is no wonder that Sybil Foster took her own life. But Chief Superintendent Roderick Alleyn doesn’t believe she was the type to kill herself – and he thinks someone else has made a very grave mistake.
Note: Back in New Zealand!
The luxury mansion on New Zealand’s Lake Waihoe is the ideal place for a world-famous soprano to rest after her triumphant tour. Among the other guests are Chief Superintendent Alleyn and his wife – but theirs is not a social visit. When tragedy strikes, and isolated by one of the lake’s sudden storms, Alleyn faces one of his trickiest cases.
Note: MacBeth at The Dolphin!
Marsh’s last mystery returns to her first love – the theatre. Peregrine Jay, owner of the Dolphin Theatre, is putting on a magnificent production of Macbeth, the play that, superstition says, always brings bad luck. But one night the claymore swings and the dummy’s head is more than real, there is a murder behind the scenes. Luckily, Chief Superintendent Roderick Alleyn is in the audience.
Roderick Alleyn Short Stories
Note: A great collection!
Essays: Roderick Alleyn
Portrait of Troy
Cases of Roderick Alleyn [list]
Short cases of Roderick Alleyn:
Death on the air
I can find my way out
Chapter and verse: the little Copplestone mystery
Hand in the sand
Fool about money
Telescript: Evil liver
Comments: the case with five solutions
Newly discovered: The figure quoted.
Note: A remix of Death on Air
Portrait of Troy
Death on the air
I can find my way out
Chapter and verse: the little Copplestone mystery
The hand in the sand
The cupid mirror
A fool about money
A tele script: Evil liver ( Episode of the series Crown Court by Granada Television Ltd; England 1975)
Comments: the case with five solutions
“Evil Liver” (script of episode of series Crown Court by Granada Television; recorded in England, 1975)
“My Poor Boy” (1959)
Roderick Alleyn DVD Collections
Ngaio Marsh Theatre (1977-79)
New Zealand TV Series
Link to available information on all four episodes: Ngaio Marsh Theatre
Includes: A Man Lay Dead, The Nursing Home Murder, Final Curtain, Death at the Bar
Includes: Death in a White Tie, Hand in Glove, Dead Water, Scales of Justice
Ngaio Marsh Non-Fiction
Available in paperback and ebook editions, also included in volume 11 of the Inspector Alleyn 3-Book Collections, with Photo Finish & Light Thickens