I read a lot of mysteries as well as a lot about mysteries, and Ngaio Marsh is one of the names of mystery writers that comes up most often. I’m therefore embarrassed to admit that I’ve never read any of her books, especially because she is known as one of the four “Queens of Crime,” along with Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, and Margery Allingham. These women dominated crime fiction during its Golden Age, the 1920s and 1930s.
Marsh was born (in 1895) and died (1982) in Christchurch, New Zealand. During her adult life she split her time between New Zealand and the United Kingdom. She is now best known for her series of 32 novels, published between 1934 and 1982, that feature Roderick Alleyn, a detective with the London Metropolitan Police, but she was also passionate about painting and the theater.
In 1978 she received the Grand Master Award for lifetime achievement as a detective novelist from the Mystery Writers of America. The Ngaio Marsh Award is given every year to the best in New Zealand crime fiction. Neil Nyren, retired editor of G.P. Putnam’s Sons, lists his favorites of Ngaio Marsh’s books here.
I recently came across the article “She May Have Died in 1999, but Iris Murdoch Is the Perfect Novelist for Our Time” by Isaac Butler, and reading it reminded that I’ve always had Murdoch’s name on my mental list of authors to be read.
Jean Iris Murdoch was born in Ireland in 1919. She later studied philosophy at Oxford. In 1956 she married John Bayler, a literary critic and novelist. According to Butler, “Over the course of 40 years, she wrote 26 novels and multiple works of philosophy, alongside poems, short stories, plays, and voluminous private correspondence.” In 1987 Queen Elizabeth named her a Dame for services to literature. Murdoch was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1997 and died in Oxford in 1999.
In 2019 Dwight Garner described her work as follows:
For decades this remarkable writer delivered prickly, sophisticated and somewhat unearthly fiction about good and evil and sex and morality. She trailed a large, large muse. She deftly moved her ideas about, positioning them like the slabs used to build Stonehenge.—“On the Centennial of Iris Murdoch’s Birth, Remembering a 20th-Century Giant”
Garner concludes the article by discussing his favorite of Murdoch’s novels, The Sea, The Sea (1978), which won the Booker Prize.
Doris Lessing was born Doris May Tayler in 1919 in Persia (now Iran). In 1925 her family moved to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to farm, but the farm did not provide much income. Doris’s mother tried to lead an English lifestyle, but their poverty much such a life impossible. Doris attended an all-girls convent school in the Southern Rhodesian capital of Salisbury (now Harare) until age 13 and was self-educated after that. She left home at age 15 and worked as a nursemaid. Her employer gave her books on sociology and politics to read, and she began to write around this time.
She then went to Salisbury to work as a telephone operator and married her first husband. The couple had two children before the marriage ended in 1943; Doris left the children with their father but remained in Salisbury. She was drawn to the Left Book Club, a Communist organization, where she met her second husband, Gottfried Lessing. They had a son but divorced in 1949, when she took her young son with her to London. She became increasingly disillusioned with the Communist movement and left it in 1954.
The biography of Lessing on the website Doris Lessing: A Retrospective describes her fiction this way:
Lessing’s fiction is deeply autobiographical, much of it emerging out of her experiences in Africa. Drawing upon her childhood memories and her serious engagement with politics and social concerns, Lessing has written about the clash of cultures, the gross injustices of racial inequality, the struggle among opposing elements within an individuals own personality, and the conflict between the individual conscience and the collective good. Her stories and novellas set in Africa, published during the fifties and early sixties, decry the dispossession of black Africans by white colonials, and expose the sterility of the white culture in southern Africa.
Doris Lessing received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2007. She died in London in 2013 at the age of 94.
One of the books on my TBR bucket list is Lessing’s 1962 novel The Golden Notebook.
Another British writer I’ve not yet read is Murial Spark (1918-2006). She was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1993. Her first interest was poetry, though she soon began to write fiction as well.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) was her breakthrough novel and remains her best known work.
Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) was born in Wellington, New Zealand. In 1903 she went to London with her two older sisters to attend Queen’s College. “On her return home at the end of 1906, she felt stifled by colonial Wellington and her respectable, upper-class family and longed to escape” (source).
In 1908 she left New Zealand for England, where she became friends with D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, and others of the Bloomsbury Group. She traveled in Europe before dying of tuberculosis in France in 1917 at the age of 34.
Mansfield wrote poetry and short stories illustrative of modernism, the early 20th century movement that rejected 19th century literary conventions in favor of more experimental literary forms, such as stream of consciousness and the use of fragmentary images.
Katherine Anne Porter
The American journalist, essayist, and fiction writer Katherine Anne Porter was born Callie Russell Porter in Indian Creek, Texas, in 1890. When she was two years old, her mother died in childbirth. She and three siblings were raised in Kyle, Texas, by their grandmother, Catherine Ann Porter, whose name the writer later adopted.
After several years of marriage to a physically abusive husband, Porter left Texas for Chicago. She began writing drama critiques and social news for newspapers. She almost died in Denver during the 1918 flu pandemic. In 1919 she moved to Greenwich Village in New York City.
The Collected Stories (1965) won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1966. Porter died in Maryland in 1980, at age 90. Porter is remembered today mainly for her stories, the autobiographical trilogy of short novels titled Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939), and the novel Ship of Fools, published in 1962.
Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865) was an English novelist, biographer, and short story writer. Often referred to as Mrs. Gaskell, she wrote the first biography of Charlotte Brontë, which was published in 1857. Her novels provide pictures of the lives of many classes of society. Her best known work today is Cranford (1853), a social history based on the village of Knutsford, where she grew up.
Before 1950, Gaskell was primarily remembered as a minor Victorian novelist. But in the 1950s and 1960s, critics began to see the presentations of social and industrial conditions in her novels as forerunners of the emergence of feminism.
Benjamin Black is the pen name Irish novelist John Banville uses for his crime novels, most of which feature the pathologist Quirke in 1950s Dublin. There have been eight novels, published between 2007 and 2021, in this series.
Sally Hepworth (born in 1980) lives in Melbourne, Australia. Before becoming a writer, she worked in event management and human resources. She has published eight novels, the most recent being The Younger Wife (2022).
Mrs. Henry Wood (Ellen Wood)
About 40 years ago, as a doctoral student in American literature, I wrote a paper on The Hidden Hand, the most popular novel by American writer Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth (1819-1899). When I recently came across an article about Mrs. Henry Wood (1814-1887), I knew I had to check out her works, which sound similar to Southworth’s.
Mrs. Henry Wood was the pen-name of Ellen Wood (née Price), one of the best-selling authors of the second half of the nineteenth-century. She first became famous as the author of East Lynne (1861) – one of the most successful of the sensation novels of the 1860s. Wood followed her initial triumph with thirty more novels, and over a hundred short stories, most containing elements of mystery, crime, detection and suspense. Wood also edited the highly successful Argosy magazine from 1867 until her death some twenty years later.—“Ellen Wood – A Biographical Sketch”
© 2022 by Mary Daniels Brown