Edith Ngaio Marsh (known all her life as Ngaio - SAMPA naI@U) was born in Christchurch, New Zealand and educated at St Margaret's College in that city, where she was a foundation pupil. She studied painting at the Canterbury College school of Art before becoming an actress with the Allan Wilkie company touring New Zealand. From 1928 onward she divided her time between living in England and in her native New Zealand. She was honoured with a DBE (Dame Commander of the British Empire) in 1966.
Internationally she is best known for her 32 detective novels published between 1934 and 1982. Along with Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham and Dorothy L. Sayers she was classed as one of the four original 'Queens of Crime' - female British crime writers who dominated the crime fiction genre of the 1930s and 1940s. Of the four, her work shows the greatest depth of characterisation, and often carries a vein of humour.
All her books feature British CID detective Roderick Alleyn and most are set in England or New Zealand (with Alleyn either on holiday or on secondment to the New Zealand police). Several novels feature Marsh's other loves, the theatre (Vintage Murder, Final Curtain, Light Thickens) and painting. Alleyn marries a painter who he meets during an investigation.
Marsh's first love, however, was the theatre, and in New Zealand she is remembered more for her theatrical endeavours than her detective fiction. In 1942 she produced a modern-dress Hamlet for the Canterbury University College Drama Society (now UCDS), the first of many Shakespearian productions with the society until 1969. In 1944, Hamlet and a production of Othello toured a theatre-starved New Zealand to rapturous acclaim. In 1949, assisted by entrepreneur Dan O'Connor, her student players toured Australia with a new version of Othello and Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author. In the 1950s she was involved with the New Zealand Players, a relatively short-lived attempt at a national professional touring repertory company.
She lived long enough to see New Zealand with a viable professional theatre industry with realistic Arts Council support, with many of her protègès to the forefront. The 430-seat Ngaio Marsh Theatre at the University of Canterbury is named in her honour.
Ngaio Marsh published a lyrical but not very revealing autobiography, Black Beech & Honeydew (Collins) in 1966. Margaret Lewis published an authorized biography, Ngaio Marsh, A Life (ISBN 0908912064) in 1991.