Ngaio Marsh on Inspector Alleyn

‘…that nice chap, Alleyn’

(Contemporary review comment)

Inspector Alleyn

A well-established cliché or adage in writing is that the texts reveal something about the author themselves. However, I think it is also true that essays or even interviews where the writer has to discuss their work in the sense of how it came about, the creation of the characters and its relations to other texts, can also be telling, as even if what they say is not entirely true and has been added retrospectively, it is interesting to see how the author wants to viewed and whether they are successful in this.

Since it is the first week of Tuesday Night Bloggers posts on Ngaio Marsh I have decided to look at a couple of essays Marsh wrote on Inspector Alleyn, Agatha Troy and the origins of her writing career. These essays were printed in The Collected Short Fiction of Ngaio Marsh (1989), which was edited and introduced by Douglas G. Greene.

The Collected Short Fiction of Ngaio Marsh

The Origins of Inspector Alleyn

Ngaio Marsh, luxuriating in her artist background paints rather a naïve, optimistic and non-serious beginning for her writing career, suggesting that Inspector Alleyn ‘was born… on a very wet Saturday afternoon in a basement flat off Sloane Square, London. The year was 1931.’ A combination of the weather, being home alone, it ‘being the season, in England, when the Murder Game was popular at weekend parties,’ and having finished a crime novel, borrowed from the library; ‘either a Christie or Sayers,’ all contributed to Marsh rushing out to a stationer’s shop and buying herself ‘six exercise books, a pencil and pencil sharpener.’ The book she would go on to write, bringing Inspector Alleyn into existence would be A Man Lay Dead (1934) and the premise behind this was a game of Murder going horribly wrong, with a real victim turning up.

A Man Lay Dead

Characterising Alleyn

In contrast to Lord Peter Wimsey who is described as having a face which ‘looked as if it had generated spontaneously from his top hat, as white maggots breed from Gorgonzola,’ (Whose Body?, 1923), Inspector Alleyn is dubbed by newspapers in the novels as ‘the handsome Inspector.’ Marsh describes him as ‘tall and thin, with an accidental elegance about him.’ Personality wise she sees him as ‘a compassionate man… [with] a cockeyed sense of humour, dependent largely upon understatement.’ She also warns us that ‘for all his… rather apologetic ways, he could be a formidable person of considerable authority.’ Although I think for readers this more formidable side develops over time, as in the earlier novels, as Douglas Greene notes, Inspector Alleyn is rather infected with the Bright Young things style. Moreover, a strong connection between Lord Peter Wimsey and Inspector Alleyn is their class status, as Alleyn is the younger brother of a Baronet and he attended Eton.

Detective Type

Looking back at detective fiction in the 1930s, Marsh recalls it as a time where fictional sleuths were ‘of more-or-less eccentric habit with a collection of easily identifiable mannerisms,’ suggesting this trend began with Sherlock Holmes. The examples she includes of such detectives are Agatha Christie’s Poirot, who is described as ‘splendid’, Dorothy L. Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey, who is termed ‘excruciatingly facetious,’ H. C. Bailey’s Reggie Fortune who is summed up with a phrase the character uses often ‘My dear chap! Oh, my dear chap!’ and S. S. Van Dine’s Philo Vance who ‘spoke a strange language… [which the author] had the nerve to attribute in part, to Balliol College, Oxford.’ Aside from Poirot, the other examples seem rather negative, especially Sayer’s and Van Dine’s. The former example is one I definitely disagree with and I think Peter Wimsey really develops as a character, going beyond perhaps his ‘facetious roots’. This criticism wouldn’t have bothered me so much if it wasn’t quite so hypocritical, as in the early Inspector Alleyn novels I think Alleyn can also be ‘facetious’ and flippant and Greene picks out two excellent examples from A Man Lay Dead and Enter a Murderer (1935):

‘You’ve guessed my boyish secret. I’ve been given a murder to solve – aren’t I a lucky little detective?’ (A Man Lay Dead)

‘Perhaps he knew me. I’m as famous as anything you know… An actor in his dressing-room will thrill me to mincemeat. I shall sit and google at him, I promise you.’ (Enter a Murderer)

I wonder whether because Sayers was dead by the time this comment was written, Marsh thought she could be more honest in her opinions. An alternative though is that because there are a number of similarities between Alleyn and Wimsey, Marsh might have been trying to create some distance between the characters through negative comments (believe me there are more to come).

Based on these observations, Marsh says she decided ‘that… [her] best chance lay in comparative normality… and that… [she] better not tie mannerisms, like labels round his neck.’ To be fair to her here she does suggest that in her earlier novels she ‘did not altogether succeed in this respect’. She wanted her detective to ‘be a professional policeman but, in some ways, atypical: an attractive civilised man with whom it would be pleasant to talk [to], but much less pleasant to fall out [with].’ This comment rather made me think she wanted to have her cake and eat it, in that she wanted a police detective, thus distinguishing him from the eccentric amateurs, but still wanted to retain the affability of the amateur sleuth. Moreover, again her description of how she wanted her police detective to be atypical, brings to mind good old Peter Wimsey.

Just Good Friends

An area Marsh seems to flex her talons in, is with the old question of whether Sayers was in love with her fictional detective and Marsh suggests this is the case and that ‘to have done so may have been an error in taste and judgement’. She goes on to call this action ‘regrettabl[e],’ believing it led to Sayers ‘making rather an ass of… [herself and Wimsey] in the process.’ Conversely, she suggests that she has never ‘succumbed in this way to… [her] own investigator, but… [has] grown to like him as an old friend.’ Douglas Greene however disagrees with this assertion to an extent, but more on that later. I don’t know myself how accurate her perception of her relationship with her character is but I do think even if she wasn’t in love with him, she did get rather attached to him and she says that ‘he has developed third-dimensionally in my company’ and looking back on the novels she describes them as times when she and Alleyn ‘have travelled widely’. Additionally, in response to the question of whether Alleyn was based on someone, she refutes the idea, stating that:

‘He, as far as I can tell, had no begetter apart from his author. He came in without introduction and if, for this reason, there is an element of unreality about him, I can only say that for me, at least, he was and is very real indeed.’

I suppose a question at this point for any writers reading this post is what relationship do they have with their main characters? Are they just ideas on a page or do they live alongside the writer in some more tangible and meaningful way?


Dulwich College
Dulwich College

Marsh suggests that she got the surname for Alleyn from the fact that prior to starting her first Alleyn mystery she had recently gone to see Dulwich College, where her father had gone to school. It seems that older ex-students of the college were called ‘an old Alleynian,’ as the college was apparently started by a famous Elizabethan actor of the name Alleyn. Alleyn’s first name came from a trip to Scotland with friends where Marsh encountered the name ‘Roderick (or Rory) MacDonald’.

Romance and Detective Work

Readers familiar with Marsh’s work will know that Alleyn goes on to marry Agatha Troy (whose name is apparently not influenced by Christie), but when Marsh first planted the seeds for this love interest, she says her agent was ‘a bit dubious about marrying Alleyn off.’ Marsh ties this aversion into a school of thought which originated with Arthur Conan Doyle, whereby the ‘love-interest, where the investigating character is involved, should be kept off-stage in detective fiction, or at least handled in a rather gingerly fashion and got rid of with alacrity.’ Marsh cites Doyle’s ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ (1891) as an example, although does bring up E. C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case (1913) as an exception.

Agatha Troy is an artist and a reason for why Greene suggests that Marsh may be a bit more involved with her character than she suggests is because of the way she ‘identified with Alleyn’s wife:

Inspector Alleyn and Agatha Troy
Inspector Alleyn and Agatha Troy

‘People who know me very well see me in her. Agatha Troy’s tastes are mine and of course she’s a painter and I started off as a painter.’’

These similarities consequently undermine Marsh’s idea that she and Alleyn are just good friends…


As always I am keen to hear what everyone else thinks, so feel free to comment below…



  1. Great essay, Kate. We see how detectives like Alleyn, Wimsey, and Ellery Queen changed and evolved. It makes me wonder how Agatha Christie could complain about Poirot so much when she had created such a good thing and could always rest him and turn to Miss Marple for variety. Doyle killed off Holmes! The relationship between an author and his characters is definitely worth exploring!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah it definitely is an interesting area. I think for me looking at Marsh in the essays she wrote, what perhaps annoyed me was the way she criticised LPW and Sayers, particularly in areas which I think to an extent Marsh was at times culpable of also.


  2. Yes her criticisms seem rather unfair, and she is certainly guilty of the same failings. Alleyn makes me wince quite a lot, and his aristocratic background is a bit much. And handsome as well! What a collection of attributes. But I enjoy (many of) the books so let it pass…

    Liked by 2 people

    • You’re exactly right, Moira. Given how multi-faceted Wimsey was even early on (I think Whose Body has the attack of PTSD f I remember correctly), it’s interesting to reflect that Alleyn was little more than a collection of intelligent handsome understated witticisms. Marion Mainwaring’s Murder in pastiche has the character Broderick Tournier – pronounced ‘Turner’, of course – who is a spoof of Alleyn, and she captures him perfectly precisely because there’s so little to him and it’s all marvellously idealised.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Murder in Pastiche is perfectly fine, but nothing special. The same core idea was done far more successfully – with a far superior plot and finer focus on its parodies – in Case for Three Detectives by Leo Bruce, which I’d have to insist simply everyone reads (provided you’ve brushed against some Poirot, Wimsey and Fr. Brown stories first, of course).

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I do enjoy the Alleyn novels although I think they provide a prime example to illustrate Conan Doyle’s comment about keeping any love interest on the sidelines. The romantic interludes in Marsh are, for the most part, painfully embarrassing and best skimmed over quickly. Surely people at that time were not so irritatingly arch in their love affairs?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Baronets are way less posh than Dukes. But in earlier books, characters do say that they expected policemen to be “common” and that it’s nice to deal with a “gent”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes you are definitely right there and in Scales of Justice, Alleyn is actually selected to solve the murder because of his rank/ social connections, as the suspects involved are aristocratic/ well connected politically.


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