by Dean James
Once a month I (as the self-appointed history of mystery guru in the group) am going to blog about Femmes Fatales of bygone days. Some of them readers will surely be familiar with, others might be a bit obscure. The presence of women in the genre has always been important, at least in terms of quality, although at times they were not as visible as their male counterparts.
For this first dip into the past I chose a writer who was one of the best-known mystery writers in the world in her day, Ngaio Marsh. Born in New Zealand in 1895, she was an eminent Shakespearean producer as well as one of the finest of Golden Age mystery writers. She was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1966 for her services to the theater, but readers knew her best as the creator of that most urbane of detectives, Roderick Alleyn.
A Scotland Yard man from a distinguished aristocratic family, Alleyn first appeared in 1932 in A Man Lay Dead. He appeared thereafter in 31 more novels and made his last bow in Light Thickens in 1982, the year Dame Ngaio passed away. Marsh was hailed by critics for her witty dialogue, her ability to stage her scenes impeccably, and for her complex plots and inventive methods of murder. Four of the novels are set in her native New Zealand, the rest in England.
Among my favorites are Death of a Peer (called Surfeit of Lampreys outside the US) and Killer Dolphin, the latter one of her excellent theatrical mysteries. A contemporary of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Margery Allingham, Marsh was one of the "Queens of Crime" during the Golden Age (the period between the two World Wars) and beyond. If you like sophisticated, well-written detective novels and haven't yet discovered Marsh and her creation Roderick Alleyn, they await you like a fine vintage and a rich multi-course repast. Dig in!