by Marvin Lachman

   [Back in 1982] Jove Books was busily reprinting virtually all of Ngaio Marsh’s books, making it possible for the reader to trace her long career from its beginning, with A Man Lay Dead (1934), to her latest in paperback, Photo Finish (1980). [At the time this essay first appeared] one book remained to be published, posthumously: Light Thickens (Little Brown, 1982).

   Like her contemporaries, Sayers and Allingham, Marsh used elements of the thriller in her early work. A Man Lay Dead, though a detective story, is also about Bolsheviks, spies, and maidens in distress. It moves at a far crisper pace than later Marsh because there are fewer long passages detailing the interrogation of suspects. If Marsh had a weakness, it was that her hero, Roderick Alleyn, spent too much time asking questions.

   More than compensating was her use of unusual murder methods. I can think of few authors as imaginative in how they disposed of victims-to-be. My favorite is the gun-in-the-piano in Overture to Death (1939), but there are other contenders; e.g., the wool-compressing machine in Died in the Wool (1945) and the swinging champagne bottle in Vintage Murder (1937).

   Another Marsh strength was what Howard Haycraft dubbed the “Marsh-milieu.” It was a world of artists, theater people, aristocracy, and civilized policemen. Far removed from the usual settings for murder in real life, it was all the better for escape reading because of that.

   Especially attractive were such theater novels as Night at the Vulcan (1951) and Killer Dolphin (1966). Not only did she make the people come alive, but she made you feel you were physically inside the theater.

   Generally, Marsh’s novels did not change too much from the classic detective type she used in her second, Enter a Murderer (1935). She returned to the thriller once, with excellent results, in Spinsters in Jeopardy (1953). Her attempts to modernize her books, by using the drug scene in When in Rome (1970), the leader of an emerging African nation in Black as He’s Painted (1974), or the Mafia in Photo Finish, were not fully successful. Yet, each of these hooks contained enough traditional Marsh to satisfy her fans.

   If I had a gun to my head and had to select only two Marsh books to recommend, I would pick Overture to Death and Death in a White Tie (1938). However, there are almost thirty others which I’ve read, enjoyed, and can recommend. Thankfully most are [still] available.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 6, No. 6, Nov-Dec 1982.