Queen and Commander
Ngaio Marsh was one of the iconic mystery writers of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. She was seen as one of the Queens of Crime, a title which she shared with the household names Margery Allingham, Dorothy L. Sayers, and most notably, Agatha Christie. They were an exceptional group of female authors who dominated not only crime fiction but the publishing business as a whole during their time.
She opened her eyes to the world at eighteen-ninety-five in Christchurch, New Zealand where she also spent the majority of her life. She tried some acting in her twenties and switched to writing in 1928 during her stay in the United Kingdom. Her influence would go on to be recognized in both countries as she was honored with the title “Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire” in the UK and the annual Ngaio Marsh Awards in New Zealand.
Best Ngaio Marsh Books
Ngaio Marsh was best known for her book series featuring a heroic policeman named Roderick Alleyn which went on for thirty-two books. The first book would be written with Ngaio Marsh wanting to write a book similar to Agatha Christie and buying five exercise books along with a murder-themed party game. I will go over the first ten books of the Roderick Alleyn series in chronological order to give you a taste of the iconic author’s most iconic work.
A Man Lay Dead is one of the best selling Ngaio Marsh books which is a highly impressive feat considering it is both the first book of the series and the first published book of the author. The author would later on convey to us the writing process of the book along with all the reasons she decided to write one in the essay titled “Roderick Alleyn” which she wrote for a magazine located in her home country New Zealand.
The book itself tells the story of the gentleman inspector Roderick Alleyn arriving at a country home party gone wrong. One of the five party guests named Charles Rankin would be found laying lifeless on the floor after a round of the “Murder” party game is played and the lights are turned on. The inspector would be met with perfect alibis from all party-goers and the disappearance of a butler which no one seems to know anything about.
Usual yet Captivating
This plot may seem a bit typical for fans of crime fiction. It is an upper-class intricacy with a seemingly perfect murder that the smart inspector will solve in a stroke of genius. Yet, the author manages to shine through with her highly captivating writing style right off the bat. The intentionally petty behaviors and interactions of the characters provide a sense of realness that makes this piece one of the best books by Ngaio Marsh.
Placed second in the series, we have Enter a Murdered which is one of the best rated Ngaio Marsh books in the article. The author very evidently draws her inspiration for this piece from her involvement with theatre and acting during her earlier years. She uses her knowledge of the technicalities of running a theater show as well as the personal relationships of all the people involved in it.
It is the story of a sabotaged theatre play that turns the stage into the grounds of manslaughter or even murder. The prop gun which the leading man of the show Felix Gardener was supposed to use on Arthur Surbonadier as a part of the play shoots a real bullet that ends the actor’s life right on the spot. The love triangle including the two actors as well as the sheer number of people Surbonadier wronged in his career will complicate the case for Alleyn.
Enter a Murderer is a classical piece of crime fiction that would and still is inspire a lot of artists to write a similar story. The main strength of the plot as a whole is the complexity that is brought on by the countless possible reasons behind the accident. After all, the victims are literally people under the spotlight. Author’s humorous mystery attitude consists in this book as well and her improved character creation is not hard to notice at all.
The next piece in this Ngaio Marsh book list is the book The Nursing Home Murder with a possibly misleading title. It is not set in a nursing home but instead, in a private hospital well before the founding of the National Health Service. Another critical detail about the plot is that it is set during a time of heavy conflict both in the United Kingdom and in the World.
The person at the heart of the story is the Home Secretary of the times, Sir Derek O’Callaghan. He is a controversial name among the radicalized parts of the population as well as an in-the-open target for outside threats. With these at hand, you can expect there to be a lot of chaos when he suddenly collapses to the ground in the House of Commons and turns out to have suffered an unnatural death after the emergency operation.
I would not say this book deserves a spot among the best Ngaio Marsh novels but it is still a decently enjoyable book. The mystery of the story runs head-to-head with those of the first two novels and the possibilities are even more intriguing with the addition of political threats. What pulls it down a notch is the author working with a setting she did not have any experience in and the result is stale, stereotyped characters.
In the fourth of our Ngaio Marsh book reviews, we will go over the often-overlooked piece Death in Ecstasy. It is a controversial setting that involves religious beliefs, homophobia, and heavy stereotyping. At one point, the beloved inspector Roderick even spikes the drink of someone. In other words, he drugs a person without their consent or knowledge. You probably have an idea of why it is overlooked by now.
The story picks up from the ritualistic murder case that the inspector’s young journalist friend Nigel Bathgate witnessed. After noticing an interest piquing number of people gathering in a building in his neighborhood, Nigel decides to spy on and eventually go undercover in the House of the Sacred Flame. He immediately asks for Alleyn’s help when a filthy rich woman Cara Quayne is poisoned during a chalice-passing ritual.
Not What They Seem
I know that the details I provided you with at the beginning are more than enough reasons to never pick this book up, but I doubt they were put in as a true reflection of the author. I do not think they were intended to be taken seriously and were just some of the satirical elements Ngaio likes to include in her works. Even if that is not the case, the plot of the book itself along with its eccentric characters makes up for a decent read.
The fifth book of the best Ngaio Marsh series, Vintage Murder is another story about a theatre-involved murder. The biggest attention catcher in the book for me was a more grounded and developed Roderick Alleyn. I guess it can be said without much doubt that the previous four books in the series did not really have consistency in the way they portrayed the inspector. This one, however, seems to do so.
Inspector Alleyn is invited to the latest play set up by Carolyn Dacres English Comedy Company while he is on a calm and relaxing vacation in New Zealand. Countless scandalous and upsetting events take place when the group of actors and the inspector are traveling by train to their newly-united destination. To add the cherry on top of the stinky mess already present, Alleyn gets to witness a murder on stage for the second time.
Working With Her Own Culture
Putting aside the improvements made to the lead man of the series, there is one more beautiful aspect of the book. This one of the best novels by Ngaio Marsh takes place in her home country and she finally gives herself a chance to work with her own culture and people. She highlights the unique use of the language of her people and she puts in a word or two about the native Maoris and the unjust way they were treated.
Artists in Crime is yet another one of the top rated Ngaio Marsh books included in this list. It picks up just a little after from where the previous book in the series left us with. We see the inspector returning to his beloved United Kingdom by a ship. I know what you are thinking by now and no, no one is murdered during their trip. Something a lot more wonderful happens instead, Roderick falls in love.
The lucky woman whom our inspector is struck by is an artist named Agatha Troy. They have the chance to chat it up a bit while they are sailing and Roderick learns that Agatha’s place is fairly close to his mother’s. So, Alleyn decides to visit her mother for a while and hopefully spend some more time with the lady. His wish becomes true in what is maybe the worst way possible when a visiting student of Agatha is found dead.
Showing Who He is
Artists in Crime takes the flag from Vintage Crime in terms of creating a better Roderick Alleyn. The story includes both his newfound love and old relationship all the way from distant friends to his mom. This setting provides the perfect setup for our character to express what kind of a person he is, especially when certain events force him to choose some things in life over others.
Following the two well-written stories, we have the most popular of Ngaio Marsh’s books which is Death in a White Tie. It mainly revolves around the concept of Debutante or coming out ball, a heavily sexist Christian tradition of the old. A Debutante includes one or more women who have reached an age of maturity that their family “sees fit” to marry. They are basically showcased for the small audience of bachelors of the family’s choice.
Inspector Alleyn’s mother and her niece Sarah are eager to be included in the coming out ball of Lady Evelyn Carrados’s daughter, Bridget. However, there is a blackmailer among the guests of this event who seems to have quite an amount of experience in their field. Knowing this, Roderick decides to get a little help from one of his old mates known as Lord Robert Gospell and asks him to keep an eye out for anything unusual.
I believe this piece is definitely a strong contender for the best Ngaio Marsh book, which should say you something about its quality. In the book, Ngaio takes everything that makes a whodunnit story enjoyable and she turns them up to the fullest. She also takes out some over-done and not really effective aspects, replacing them with more interesting tropes. On top of these, the mystery included is one of the most colorful ones I’ve read in the series.
The next book I will go over in my search for the best Ngaio Marsh book is Overture to Death, a book in which the author shows how well of a mystery she can write. Besides the wholly creative mystery, I have also noticed Ngaio trying to give a little more spotlight to her reader-approved satirical and humorous conversations that I also praised multiple times above.
It tells the journey of Roderick trying to find the culprit behind the genius murder of Miss Campanula who was shot dead by a contrivance inserted inside of the piano she had just started playing. There are a lot of people who could be involved in this weirdly executed crime including the locals who raised money for the piano with the amateur plays they have put on.
Challenging to Review
Overture to Death is a little more challenging for me to review compared to the author’s other works. On one hand, it is perhaps the best Ngaio Marsh novel in terms of the creativity of the story itself. On the other hand, there are multiple works by the author that just show a more substantial writing quality. I think the best I can say about the book is, its average.
Nearing the end of our Ngaio Marsh books ranked article, we have the ninth book in the series with the title Death at the Bar. It is considered a Ngaio classic as it dominantly uses proven and iconized plot devices of crime fiction. This of course means there is less of the creativity we are used to see from the author though.
It is the story of three friends with Luke Watchman being the main focus of the story. Watchman is a man with no shortage of people who have a reason to want him gone and you can measure up in your mind how big of a problem that will be for the inspector when he drops dead while playing a game of dart.
Doing it Well
As I said in the beginning, the author does what she knows best in this book and she does it well. It is well-written, it has a great set of characters, and the setting is created quite nicely. I am also a big fan of the series taking a direction in showing us more of Roderick’s friendships and this book continues to go down that path.
The last one of the Ngaio Marsh books in order is the tenth book, Death of a Peer which is also known as Death as a peer. It is written in a war-riddled London and while going through a war usually affects an artist in fundamental ways, I could not really notice any related changes in the author herself. Still, the more grim atmosphere of the book is noticeable.
It tells the story of the eccentric New Zealandia family of Lampreys who have lost the wealth they were born into during a financial crisis. When their unlikeable relative Lord Marquis passes away in a horrific murder and leaves behind a good amount of wealth for them, they can almost feel all the eyes turning to them.
Ending on a Good Note
I would say with Death of a Peer, we are ending this list of the best Ngaio Marsh books on a good note. It is an excellently written book that includes what I think is the best ending I have read in the series so far. I love being able to see a writer’s progress as they periodically publish books of the same nature and in the case of Ngaio, I am very satisfied.
Ngaio Marsh was a very notable writer of her time and the thirty-three books long Roderick Alleyn series is her legacy as the Queen of Crime. She should be an inspiration to any and all aspiring artists out there given her story of going all the way through with her desire to create and discover a talent that would make her an immortal woman of arts.
Alissa is an avid reader, blogger, and wannabe writer. (She's a much better cook than a writer actually). Alissa is married, has one human, one feline, and two canine kids. She always looks a mess and never meets a deadline.