Kiwi novelist on the tricky art of completing an abandoned Ngaio Marsh mystery novel

Kiwi novelist Stella Duffy:"I have a real awareness that it will be judged quite harshly."
Gino Sprio

Kiwi novelist Stella Duffy:"I have a real awareness that it will be judged quite harshly."

On the London bookshelf of Kiwi author Stella Duffy there are 18 novels by golden age crime writer Dame Ngaio Marsh.

"They have been ripped apart, taped back together, covered in notes and highlighted. When I think I can't hear her voice, I grab one of those and look at what I've highlighted," says Duffy.

She also has a whiteboard filled with recurring phrases from Marsh's novels.

Crime writer Ngaio Marsh photographed circa 1935 by Henry Herbert Clifford.
Alexander Turnbull Library

Crime writer Ngaio Marsh photographed circa 1935 by Henry Herbert Clifford.

"There are a bunch of phrases that she has used in two or three books or every book. I want to pepper it lightly with those."

These are Duffy's wayfinders as she embarks on the "daunting task" of completing Marsh's unfinished 1940s novel Money in the Morgue.

"I have a real awareness that it will be judged quite harshly. People will be reading it with one eye on working out what I got wrong."

Dame Ngaio Marsh at a book signing in Wellington for her book Tied up in Tinsel in 1972.
The Dominion Post

Dame Ngaio Marsh at a book signing in Wellington for her book Tied up in Tinsel in 1972.

Her only other guide is a page of rough notes discovered in Marsh's papers and three short first chapters written before Marsh abandoned the project.

"She had only written three chapters and they weren't full chapters. They are not as long as her normal chapters."

"The page of notes are not extensive and don't tell you who did it and why they did it."

Dame Ngaio Marsh in the dressing room of the Downstage Theatre in Wellington in March 1976. She was a driving force in ...
Supplied

Dame Ngaio Marsh in the dressing room of the Downstage Theatre in Wellington in March 1976. She was a driving force in local theatre with a particular interest in Shakespeare.

Marsh was born in Christchurch in 1895 and became one of the four "Queens of Crime" – along with Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham and Agatha Christie – to write detective fiction in the golden age of the 1920s and 30s. She wrote 32 crime novels up to her death in 1982.

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The new novel will be the first time Marsh's famous gentleman detective, Roderick Alleyn, has solved a mystery in 35 years. It is not Duffy's first crime book – she has written five mystery novels featuring her Saz Martin detective character – but it is a feat of revival that has many challenges.

For a start, Marsh's first three chapters stipulate that "all the action takes place over the course of one night."

Dame Ngaio Marsh reflects on her life and long career in 1977.
NZ On Air

Dame Ngaio Marsh reflects on her life and long career in 1977.

"I'm writing my first locked room crime novel and trying to write it like Ngaio Marsh," says Duffy.

"She chose not to finish it which maybe means she couldn't make it bloody work either."

"I think it's possible she looked at it and thought: 'that's a bad idea to set it over one night and it's impossible to do'."

Dame Ngaio Marsh in September 1981.
The Press file

Dame Ngaio Marsh in September 1981.

"Trying to maintain the pace in something that takes place in nine hours or less with a cast of ten characters, it is bloody hard work. But it is really enjoyable hard work."

The well-thumbed books and the whiteboard are all an attempt to capture Marsh's voice.

"I am trying to get Stella out of the way so what comes through is something close to an authentic Ngaio Marsh voice and not a pastiche."

Ngaio Marsh House in Cashmere, Christchurch.
Supplied

Ngaio Marsh House in Cashmere, Christchurch.

"I am most terrified that people will think it's a pastiche."

Duffy has also had to plan the novel more extensively than usual. She wrote a 12-page outline of the plot that had to be approved by the publisher, Harper Collins, and Marsh's estate before writing began.

"It is very different. It is my 16th novel and it is nothing like anything else I have ever written because it is not me.

Ngaio Marsh's former Christchurch home in Cashmere in 1996.
John Kirk-Anderson

Ngaio Marsh's former Christchurch home in Cashmere in 1996.

"Normally I would never plan anything. Half a dozen of the 200 novelists I know do nothing like an extensive plan.

"I have had to do a lot more planning for this."

But Duffy left the last third of the outline deliberately vague so she could find the conclusion as she wrote.

"Ngaio Marsh didn't do massive planning either."

"If I wanted to write like her I couldn't over plan it in advance."

Duffy says there are a couple of theories in Marsh biographies on why she gave up the novel. One is that "the war finished and she didn't want to write about the war anymore."

Another is that plot was "too close to her own emotional story."

"It was perhaps too revealing of an affair she may have had when she was an ambulance driver in the war."

The call to adventure for Duffy came about two years ago in an email from David Brawn, estates manager at Harper Collins. Brawn had great success overseeing the return of Agatha Christie's detective character Hercule Poirot in 2014's The Monogram Murders written by Sophie Hannah.

In many ways, Duffy was a logical choice to take on the unfinished Marsh novel. There are many similarities between the two writers.

They were both raised in New Zealand, but have lived in London and found literary success in Britain. Duffy was raised in Tokoroa in the North Island, but has published 14 novels in the UK, along with the five crime novels. She has been shortlisted twice for the prestigious Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction, previously known as the Orange Prize.

Like Marsh, Duffy is passionate about theatre. She has written ten plays, performed with an improv group in London and taken her solo show, Breaststrokes, around the world. She has also directed plays at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and for British theatre companies like the National Youth Theatre.

She is also founder of the Fun Palaces initiative, a network of community arts and science events held every year.

And while Duffy may not be a dame like Marsh, she was last year made an Order of the British Empire (OBE) for the Fun Palaces project and her services to the arts.

"When they asked me to do this I was stunned and then very excited. But then, I don't know anyone else who writes crime fiction, grew up in New Zealand, lives in London and loves it, and works in theatre, so I would have been a bit miffed if they had asked someone else."

The novel is set in a hospital on the Canterbury Plains and Duffy has chosen to set the action after the 1945 novel Died in the Wool in the chronology of Inspector Alleyn's crime-solving career.

"It is set in New Zealand. There is no point me doing it at all if I don't bring some of the things that I think are special about her."

"She writes about the New Zealand landscape in a very different way and makes that a character in her books set in New Zealand."

But it is tricky to write about landscapes in the new book when it is set entirely at night. Although she will mention the sound of the nearby swelling river, the wind in the trees and a morepork's call.

"In order to write descriptions of the plains I have had to give the characters memories of yesterday on the plains."

"I am looking forward to when the dawn comes and I get to write that."

"I expect to use the word primordial."

She hopes her trip to New Zealand this month for an appearance at the Word Christchurch festival will help with her descriptions of the New Zealand landscape.

"At the moment the landscape is a little unfocused because I haven't been home for three-and-a-half years. When I am there I can bring the land into focus."

She will also meet with members of the Ngaio Marsh House and Heritage Trust, which looks after the Christchurch home where Marsh lived and wrote many of her books.

The trust plans to take Duffy to the former hospital where they think Marsh based the unfinished novel.

She also plans to complete the book in Marsh's home, which is now preserved as a museum.

"I am about 60,000 words in and her books were about 70,000 to 80,000 words. When I get off the plane in New Zealand I might have got to the end of it and I would like to finish it in New Zealand. I would like to write the final lines in Ngaio Marsh's house … sitting in her armchair like she did."

Stella Duffy will speak in Christchurch at The Piano on Monday 15 May at 5.30pm as part of the Word Christchurch festival.

 - Stuff

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