Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

BooksApril 28, 2024

Inside the home of New Zealand’s greatest crime writer

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Ngaio Marsh House is one of Christchurch’s best kept secrets – and contains more than a few mysteries of its own.

Trust Ngaio Marsh to leave more than a few mysteries scattered through her house long after her departure. For a start, there’s the curious concrete portal in the garden, concealed beneath a cross-shaped hedge. There’s the unnerving papier-mache head, which some say was made in her likeness, winking at guests from the corner of the lounge. Perched on one of her many bookshelves is a toothy skull bearing a bloodied grin, entirely nonplussed by the dagger lodged through its temple. 

Perhaps one would expect this level of intrigue and unease from one of New Zealand’s most prolific crime writers. Dame Ngaio Marsh published 34 crime novels from 1934-1982, has had her work translated in over 100 languages, won the Edgar Allan Poe Grand Master award in 1978 and recently had her first novel A Man Lay Dead included in Time’s 100 Best Mystery Novels of All Time. Alongside Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, she is considered one of the queens of crime from the golden age of the detective novel.

But wait, there’s more. She’s also known for being the grand dame of local theatre, with Christchurch’s 430-seat Ngaio Marsh Theatre named in her honour. Marsh has been credited as single-handedly reviving Shakespeare in New Zealand, while also being a mentor to young upstarts such as Sam Neill. She was close pals with artists Rita Angus and Olivia Spencer Bower, writer James K Baxter and composer Douglas Lilburn, and was known for hooning around Christchurch in a shiny jet black Jaguar until she was in her 80s. 

Ngaio Marsh, New Zealand’s queen of crime fiction (Image: Wikipedia)

All those connections, all those accolades, all that influence and glamour. So why did I a) not even know who Ngaio Marsh was until I wound up at the Ngaio Marsh crime writing awards last year, and b) not have any idea that her perfectly preserved house was just six minutes up the road from me? 

“I think there is a real difference in the way that we treat certain writers,” says Jessica Peterson, chair of the Ngaio Marsh House and Heritage Trust. “Janet Frame and Katherine Mansfield wrote literature, whereas Ngaio wrote down and dirty crime, so she was treated very differently.” That’s part of the reason her Cashmere home is such an important heritage site to preserve in situ and not “museum-ify” she adds. “We really want to champion a woman who lived the way she wanted at a time when that wasn’t kind of done.”

Situated atop a serpentine driveway in the Cashmere hills, Marsh’s two bedroom home was built in 1907 and designed by Christchurch architect Samuel Hurst Seager. If you had any breath left in you by the time you made it to the front door, which I didn’t, the rest would be surely taken away by the view across the vast, flat expanse of the city. Wall-mounted costume shields greet you at the front door, establishing a sense of playfulness and theatricality – and a vaguely threatening aura – that will continue throughout. 

Ngaio Marsh’s dining room. (Image: Wikipedia)

Marsh’s dining room remains largely unchanged since her time in the house (she lived there from the age of 10 until she passed away at home in 1982, aged 86), still lined with floor-to-ceiling linseed-stained timber. There are ornate carriage lamps, a grandfather clock, and a 10-seater dining table which played host to many nights of revelry. Inspecting her kitschy handmade decoupage placemats, you can’t help but imagine what her one-time dinner guests Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier would have made of them. 

More and more details jump out as your eyes adjust. There are swords lining the walls, and a riding crop which Marsh used with her horse, Frisk. Our tour guide David tells us that she used to spend so much time galloping through the hills on Frisk that her mother sent her to a governess to try and make her more ladylike. “It didn’t work,” he smirks. On the table is a copy of one of Marsh’s many journals, this time dating back to 1907. “Hip hip hooray it is my birthday,” she wrote. “I got a lot of things, but the best is a watch.”

If she thought she had a lot of things at just 12 years old, Marsh would go on to accumulate a true treasure trove. We stop in her mint green kitchen dotted with pastel Crown Lynn, the belongings left as if Marsh had just popped to the shops to get some milk. There’s a burn mark on the green formica table, and we’re told that the mint paint job happened after a housesitter started a fire in the mid 1950s. Speaking of fire hazards, Marsh’s not-so-secret cigarette stash sits next to a tin of Rawley’s ointment and Pulmona’s pastilles. 

Ngaio Marsh’s kitchen. (Image: Alex Casey)

Even her cigarettes look classy and interesting, not all just boring white and orange but some boasting gold filters, others wrapped in the same dazzling shade of turquoise blue that adorns the lounge walls next door. A room stuffed with more books, glass trinkets, paintings and technicolour armchairs, we’re told it is here that Marsh would do most of her thinking and writing. “Every book in this room has something to do with what she felt or thought,” says David, opening a dresser to reveal folders of notes, programmes and photographs. 

The green chair at the end of the room was her favourite place to write (that or the floor, we’re told). She’d write at night in longhand in green ink, and then would give her notes to her secretary in the morning to type up on the typewriter. David pulls back one of the armchair covers, faded from decades in the sun, to reveal the original vivid emerald velour. While bright colours pop through the house, Marsh clearly had a thing for green – green ink, green chair, green kitchen… even her housekeeper was named Mrs Greene.

THE green chair (by the piano) (Image: Alex Casey)

If the lounge was the place for working, Marsh’s bedroom was clearly the glamour zone. Thick sheepskin lines the floor, her bed is draped with embroidered turquoise quilting, and a bright orange nook boasts glinting religious trinkets. Dior perfumes, engraved silver hairbrushes and silk gloves remain laid out on her dresser, and a collection of her iconic berets sit atop a large, well-used shipping trunk. David picks up her passport and shows us where Marsh crudely handwrote “DAME” in capital letters in front of her own name. 

Beholding a closet jam-packed with furs, silks, and ruching, it’s very easy to get swept up in the opulence of Marsh’s life, but what charmed me just as much were the mundane details – the burn mark on the table, the plastic pedal bin, the tossed-aside reading glasses. The idea of becoming internationally-renowned writer often seems like something that can only be achieved from the turret of a castle or some cafe in Paris, not by someone sitting on the floor at home in Christchurch and grinding out work night after night.

Ngaio Marsh’s travel trunk, berets, and embroidered blanket. (Image: Alex Casey)

“She created something quietly remarkable for herself in this little pocket of Christchurch,” says Peterson, “and that feels quite special to me.” Although Peterson admits Marsh was a fiercely private person who would “absolutely hate” having strangers traipsing through her home, she says it is a great way to connect with one of our most internationally-successful writers. Ngaio Marsh House is part of the upcoming Open Christchurch festival, and is open for tours throughout the year

As we conclude the tour outside a small extension built beneath the house in the 1970s, there’s one more reminder of Marsh’s calibre and contemporaries. “See the roses there?” David says, gesturing at the pale pink flowers climbing the outside wall of her office.

“We call that rose Agatha Christie – always peeping through the windows to see what Ngaio was writing next.” 

Keep going!