Tuesday Night Bloggers: Categorising Ngaio Marsh

A recent perusal of The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing (1999) ed. by Rosemary Herbert, brought to my attention two things. The first was that I needed to get out more, but the second thing was more pertinent to the Tuesday Night Blogger’s chosen author of the month, Ngaio Marsh.

The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing

In Margaret Lewis’ entry on Marsh she suggests there are four categories Ngaio Marsh’s novels can be put into, although some novels she says fit into more than one. The four categories she puts forward are:

  • The Country House
  • The Theatre
  • Troy Motivated/ Propelled Plots
  • New Zealand set novels

Quite a number of Marsh’s novels are easy to categorise this way.

Country House

For example in The Country House group the following novels all easily fit:

  • A Man Lay Dead (1934),
  • Death and the Dancing Footman (1942),
  • Scales of Justice (1955),
  • Hand in Glove (1962)

Stage Theatre

Likewise for the second category:

  • Enter a Murderer (1935),
  • Vintage Murder (1937),
  • Opening Night (1951)
  • Off With His Head (1957) (murder occurs during a performance, even if it is in a village),
  • False Scent (1960)
  • Death at the Dolphin (1967) and
  • Light Thickens (1982)

are readily recognisable as being attached to the theatre.

Inspector Alleyn and Agatha Troy
Inspector Alleyn and Agatha Troy

For Troy motivated or propelled plots I think the following fit this criterion:

  • Final Curtain (1947),
  • Clutch of Constables (1968),
  • Tied up in Tinsel (1972),
  • Black as He’s Painted (1974) and
  • Photo Finish (1980)

Within the majority of these novels Troy ends up at the scene of the crime after being commissioned to paint someone’s portrait.

New Zealand

Identifying the novels which correspond with the fourth category was also an easy task as there are only four novels which are set in New Zealand in the Marsh canon, which are:

  • Vintage Murder,
  • Died in the wool (1945),
  • Colour Scheme (1943) and
  • Photo Finish.

As the graph below shows unsurprisingly, the biggest category is The Theatre, though the Country House and Troy motivated plots aren’t that far behind.

Categorising Marsh2

Just looking at the dates of when the novels in different groups were written, I found it interesting that a lot of the Troy motivated/propelled ones were written quite close together and later on in Marsh’s career.

However, even the most unmathematical minded reader of this post will be wondering why I have missed out a sizeable amount of Marsh’s canon. The exact number in fact is 14 and I haven’t missed them out, but rather I found they just didn’t fit and this is perhaps my small gripe with Lewis’ categories. I would have understood if maybe one or two didn’t fit any of the categories but when it comes to 14, in my mind this suggests that some new categories need to be added. So here are my choices for new categories to encompass the remaining 14 books:

Category No. 5: The Country Village

country village

Now this first category may seem a bit of a quibble with the Country House category but in my opinion novels from these groups are different. A Country House novel first of all does need to be centred on and include a country house. The plot of the story needs to be mostly contained within this location as this affects the tension/atmosphere of the book. A country house limits the number of suspects and as further deaths occur, the anxiety of wondering whether you are sitting next to a killer at dinner is racked up. In contrast a country village novel oddly enough is set in a country village, the cast of characters is sometimes a little wider and the choice of where the murder occurs is much more variable such as the local pub or village hall. Consequently I think the following novels fit this category much better:

  • Artists in Crime (1938)
  • Overture to Death (1939)
  • Death at the Bar (1940)
  • Dead Water (1964)
  • Last Ditch (1977)

Category No. 6: The Metropolis

London c.1930

This category I think will be less disputed as there are a handful of Marsh novels which are set in London and are also not connected with the theatre or Troy motivated. Moreover, several of these novels are also bound by containing parties, balls and music and the primary deaths in these books do occur at or shortly after a family or public gathering. Therefore I think these novels deserve a group of their own:

  • Death in Ecstasy (1936)
  • Death in a White Tie (1938)
  • Surfeit of Lampreys (1941)
  • Swing Brother Swing (1949)

Category No. 7: Holiday Jaunts and Trips

Holiday Cruise 1950s

In the same way you might group Christie’s Death in the Clouds (1935), Death on the Nile (1937) and Murder on the Orient Express (1934), I felt that the following novels were bonded by their inclusion of either a holiday or trip (which isn’t to New Zealand) and/or specific mode of transport.

  • Spinsters in Jeopardy (1954)
  • Singing in the Shrouds (1959)
  • When in Rome (1970)

Category No. 8: Nursing Homes

 The Nursing Home Murder

This might seem a rather niche group to have but I felt that they did not fit any of Lewis’ categories and that they were a little more specific in location than those situated in my Metropolis category.

  • The Nursing Home Murder (1935)
  • Grave Mistake (1978)

Over to you

I am interested to hear whether people reading this would first of all placed any of the remaining 14 within the existing 4 categories in The Oxford Companion or if they had new groups, different from my 4, to sort out the remaining 14.



  1. False Scent is set in a London house!!!! None of the characters leave London for the entire book! Country houses are in the, ahem, country. I know for the phrase “country house mystery” the definition of “country house” is quite broad, but this is ridiculous!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m afraid this error crept in as this is one of the few Marsh’s I haven’t read and I had to go off other sources, which by the sounds of it clearly aren’t that trustworthy! Thanks for bringing this to my attention and I have moved False Scent into the second category of theatre as the victim is an actress.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I think you are quite right to identify countryside, metropolis, and holiday stories as distinct categories of classic crime fiction. They feature regularly in the work of many GA authors. I haven’t read Grave Mistake, but I’d be inclined to put The Nursing Home Murders in the metropolis category.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes I was a little unsure with my final category but in my head I kind of saw the nursing home as a distinct medical setting/milieu, with specific characters and features, though as you say The Nursing Home Murders could be put into the Metropolis category.


    • It is set out like a dictionary so you wouldn’t sit down and read it from cover to cover, but it is helpful in listing an extensive range of definitions for key terms and giving brief synopsises on writers such as the one I read on Marsh. Looks a bit at the different contexts and sub genres of crime fiction also and with the more thematic entries it does give suggestions of books which fit, so can be useful if you are looking at a particular theme. I found my copy cheap in Oxfam but I think cheap copies can be obtained online. And yes I do really think there is a difference between country house and country village set books – mainly in the atmospheres established, such as if you compared Death at the Bar and Death and the Dancing Footman – although both in the country, atmosphere and flow of events are quite different.


    • Yes, an English “country house” is not any old house outside a city. It is BIG, with (in those days) a large staff of servants. Originally the owners would live entirely on the produce of their farms and kitchen garden. Their income came from renting out land to farmers.


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