Author Inspiration: Ngaio Marsh

from the National Library of New Zealand via Wikimedia CommonsContemporary cozy author Rachael Rawlings recently asked me to contribute to a profile post, along with several other women writers. The theme was starting a fiction career after age forty. I shared with her my own career change and in particular, the woman who made me consider it possible: New Zealand’s Queen of Crime, Ngaio Marsh.

Here’s my story:

Writing is a second career for me. I spent my 20’s and 30’s in film and theater, as an actress, sketch writer, and producer. (And a little bit of everything else!)

I got married and had my babies later than average, and quickly realized that a lifestyle that supported my acting career was not going to work for our family. Writing was a perfect choice because it uses all those entertainment and storytelling urges, but I can do it at 5am with no makeup on. And if any of my “cast” start throwing temperament, I can kill them!

My writing inspiration is the mystery author Ngaio Marsh. She was a contemporary of Christie and Sayers, spent her early adulthood in theater, and began writing at 42, just like me! She’s marvelous, and any mystery lover who hasn’t read her stuff should run get it ASAP.

The challenges of starting a new career — and becoming an entrepreneur, really — in my 40’s are much the same as any line of work, I think. I have to be much more careful of my health. One all-nighter will cost me three days of productivity, so it’s too expensive to push like I used to.

Having children also means my life has a lot more moving parts. I was finally diagnosed with ADHD a couple of years ago. When I was younger, I didn’t have to worry about anyone but myself and my career, so my issues were less of a hindrance. Now, I have multiple priorities that are, frankly, more important than my writing. I do struggle with keeping all my different projects going in the right direction.

The greatest benefit of coming to the work after 40 is knowing myself and knowing what I want. My early life and first career were consumed with seeking approval, validation, and permission. Now I have the perspective and the confidence to take my work (but not myself) seriously for its own sake!

Rachael pens the Parrot Mysteries series, as well as paranormal romance. You can connect with her on her Facebook page.

But truly, if you aren’t familiar with Ngaio Marsh’s work, you are missing out! Though she might sound like a late bloomer as an author, her work as a painter, actress, theater director and producer all show up in her books and in her style. She lived a long and prolific life, producing 32 novels over 48 years, along with short fiction, two nonfiction books and her autobiography. That certainly inspires me to take my vitamins and turn off the time-sucks, how about you?

Her detective, Chief Inspector Alleyn, is both a wayward member of the landed gentry and a police detective. This choice forces her to incorporate all the technical difficulties of a police procedural, the psychological nuance of an amateur sleuth, and the class commentary of Alleyn’s “code-switching” as he moves among the interlocking circles of British society. I mean, this is a “triple axel, triple toe loop” of mystery writing!

Alleyn is the main character of all 32 of Marsh’s detective novels. In the sixth book, 1938’s Artists in Crime, he meets the painter Agatha Troy. She’s known professionally simply as “Troy,” and so she’s called by Marsh and Alleyn, even as they fall in love, marry, and raise a family through the series. Troy’s resistance to the social demands of conventional “womanliness,” and her egalitarian but emotionally vulnerable relationship with Alleyn feel very relevant today.

Agatha Christie is commonly criticized for putting plot before character and writing in a simplistic style. (I think that’s just snobbery, but there’s some basis for it.) Dorothy Sayers writes in a dense, intellectual style that can be slow going for some readers. Ngaio Marsh splits the difference perfectly, with a narrative voice that is rich and evocative, but so vivid and immediate that it goes down easy. Here are two samples from her 1968 novel, Clutch of Constables.

This is my favorite character description ever. Ever. I recognize this woman immediately. I’ve seen her a thousand times. Heck, I’ve been this woman before, and I feel like this about 90% of the time I try to get dressed up:

She saw a figure, not exactly of fun, but of confusion. There was no co-ordination. The claret-coloured suit, the disheartened jumper, above all the knitted jockey-cap, all looked to have been thrown at their wearer and fortuitously to have stuck.

Later, Marsh collects the visual and emotional impact of a grisly discovery into nine taut lines:

[Her] face, idiotically bloated, looked up: not at Troy, not at anything. Her mouth, drawn into an outlandish rictus, grinned through discoloured froth. She bobbed and bumped against the starboard side. And what terrible disaster had corrupted her riverweed hair and distended her blown cheeks?
The taffrail shot upwards and the trees with it. The voice of the weir exploded with a crack in Troy’s head and nothing whatever followed it. Nothing.

Ah! Can’t be beat.

Ngaio Marsh’s own unconventional life has been the subject of several works, including her autobiography Black Beech and Honeydew, a 1991 authorized biography by Margaret Lewis, and the 2008 book Ngaio Marsh: Her Life in Crime by Joanne Drayton.

No matter which Inspector Alleyn novel you pick, you can’t go wrong. But if you like to read series in order, the 1934 country-house whodunnit A Man Lay Dead will start you off in style.

Are you already a Marsh fan? Which book is your favorite? Leave a comment here or on my Facebook page, and let’s chat about it!

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