'Of the four Queens of Crime who dominated the 1930s - Margery Allingham, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy L. Sayers - Ngaio Marsh reigns supreme for excellence of style and characterisation,' writes Margaret Lewis in her introduction. The proposition could be contested; it could be maintained that Christie is more ingenious, Allingham more lively and Sayers has more intellectual weight. But Margaret Lewis's problem as a biographer is not so much finding a raison d'Ítre for her work as making it interesting. For though her subject's life was undoubtedly mouvementÍ, in that much of it was spent on the ocean wave, voyaging between England and New Zealand, events such as Christie's disappearance or Sayers's peculiar marriage are not to be found: the most exciting story in the book is that of a cocktail party Ngaio Marsh gave in Christchurch in 1953. Her young cousin forgot to dilute a potent mixture; the cream of local society, including the Dean and the Bishop, succumbed to insobriety, one elderly lady being discovered unconscious beneath the piano by her dog, which, alarmed by her absence, had come to investigate. The difficulty is compounded by her subject's reluctance to reveal anything whatsoever of her inner self, whether in conversation, letters, diaries or autobiography. Her memoirs, Black Beech and Honeydew, should, she later remarked, have been called 'Other People', and her editor at Collins describes it as 'pretty dull, largely because of her reticence'.
LRB 27 June 1991 | PDF Download