TT: Two More M’s

First of all…. Happy (American) Thanksgiving to you all.  I hope that, no matter your situation, you can find something to be grateful for…

The New Zealand Rule

The New Zealand Rule

And now, I will bother Alan again for your amusement!

JANE: I really enjoyed discussing Margaret Mahy’s works.  Alchemy was excellent, both thoughtful and stylistically challenging.  As soon as I finish the heap of books that just arrived from the library, I plan to read more of her work.

 What other New Zealand writers are there?

ALAN: There are two other New Zealand writers I’d like to mention and probably they should be considered together because they have quite a lot in common. I know you are very fond of the detective novels written by Dame Ngaio Marsh. But are you familiar with the science fiction novels of Phillip Mann?

JANE: Wait a second…  Before I answer that, I have a question for you.  Is there some sort of rule that New Zealand writers need to have surnames beginning with M?  We’ve done Mansfield and Mahy, now you want to talk about Marsh and Mann?

ALAN: Yes, that’s right. It’s the most important clause in the Literary Nomenclature Act of 1923, which is re-ratified annually on every April 1st. So I’m sorry Jane, but you are one letter too previous for New Zealand and therefore you aren’t entitled to a visa.

JANE: Wow!  I had no idea.  I’m willing to adopt a penname for New Zealand.  Jim’s last name is Moore.  I could use that, though I could give it a really odd Gaelic-inspired spelling…   How about Mohrr?

Going back to your original question, no, I haven’t read anything by Phillip Mann, although I am familiar with his name from reading your “wot I red on my hols” book review column.  My library doesn’t have any of his works, but I’d enjoy learning more so I can order one of his books.

ALAN: Not all of his novels have had American editions, but I do know that The Eye Of The Queen was published by Arbor House in hardback and that Wulfsyarn was published by William Morrow in hardback and by Avon in paperback. So they, at least, should be relatively easy for you to find.

One interesting thing that these two authors have in common, other than the letter “M,” is that both Dame Ngaio Marsh and Phillip Mann came to the world of letters through the theatre and the theatre always remained their constant passion.

Dame Ngaio produced many plays for New Zealand theatres. Shakespeare was her first love, but she also produced dramas by Pirandello, Chekov, and others. She toured with the New Zealand Players, a national professional repertory company. Until his retirement, Phillip Mann was a drama teacher at Victoria University in Wellington, and he is well known in New Zealand theatrical circles as both a producer and a director.

JANE: Have either Marsh or Mann written plays?

ALAN: Strangely, it would seem that they haven’t. Both of them seem to have concentrated on novels, and genre novels at that, rather than the mainstream literary novels that you might have expected from them, given their theatrical interests.

I’ve read very few of Dame Ngaio’s detective novels. However I know that you are a fan. Perhaps you could say something about them, and then I’ll tell you about Phillip in return?

JANE: I’m hardly an expert, but I’m certainly a fan.  I started reading her works because she was regularly grouped with Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Margery Allingham as writers of classic British mysteries.

Most of Marsh’s novels feature Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn. (Pronounced “Allen.”)  Alleyn is a very atypical police officer.  Because he is interested in art and theater, he is often assigned cases involving elements of the artistic community.  In fact, he meets his wife this way…

ALAN: That’s a nice touch – far too many fictional policemen are artistic philistines.

JANE: It’s worth noting that the characters change and develop as the series progress so reading them in order can prevent spoilers.  It’s not necessary, though.  I read them out of order and enjoyed nonetheless.

Many of Marsh’s novels are set in England – probably because that was what publishers perceived the audience as wanting.  However, even before I did any research, I began to suspect she had a close tie to New Zealand.  She’d slip in characters from New Zealand, wherever she could.

For example, in Light Thickens, which is centered around an apparently cursed production of Macbeth, one of the actors playing a smaller role is Maori.  Moreover, he’s used some moves he learned from traditional – possibly sacred – Maori culture to make his witch more outre and fascinating, then becomes very worried that he has transgressed.

ALAN: That sounds interesting. I’ll add it to my list.

JANE: Light Thickens was her last novel and brings back some characters from the earlier novel, Murder at the Dolphin, but I think it stands on its own.   Marsh had wanted to write it for a long time, but feared it was too rooted in theatrical material to appeal to her readers.  Not only did she use the superstitions about MacBeth, she showed a lot of the tensions that go on backstage – even if there isn’t a murder. However, it apparently did very well.

ALAN: Personally I’m always interested in listening to enthusiasts describe their enthusiasms, even when I don’t share them. So I suspect the readers would have enjoyed being exposed to elements of professions that they otherwise wouldn’t know about.

JANE: That’s how I feel, too!

Most of the time Marsh has Alleyn is stationed in England.  However, during World War II, Marsh has him posted to New Zealand.  This enabled her to set several novels there.  In some of these novels, Alleyn writes home to his wife, occasionally commenting on differences in culture or values that complicate his investigations.  None of this is heavy-handed, but it added a richness to the novel.

ALAN: You know, I’d always assumed that Dame Ngaio was just a pale imitation of Agatha Christie. Clearly I was wrong; it sounds like there’s a lot more to her than that. What are the titles of these New Zealand books?

JANE: Let’s see…  Died in the Wool is quite good for looking at cultural values.  It deals with the disappearance of a wealthy sheep rancher who is also a member of parliament.  Among her many activities is providing patronage to a young man who she feels is musically gifted.  His father – one of the men who works with the sheep – has very mixed feelings about this.

Colour Scheme is another of the New Zealand novels.  I think I mentioned it a while ago, in one of our Tangents.

ALAN:  A lovely piece of trivia that I picked up about Dame Ngaio was that she had houses in both New Zealand and England and, when on theatrical tours, she would sign British hotel registers with her New Zealand address and New Zealand ones with her London address.

JANE: I like that.  What a nice way of proclaiming that she was “at home” in both lands.

I could keep going on about Ngaio Marsh, but I’d like to hear more about Phillip Mann.  Maybe next time?


8 Responses to “TT: Two More M’s”

  1. Louis Robinson Says:

    Now this is intriguing: according to the TPL catalogue, Eye of the Queen was published in 1877. Since it’s held in the Merrill Collection, it must be SFF – do we perhaps have a time traveller on our hands?

  2. Paul Dellinger Says:

    Hmm. Is James Bond’s boss, “M,” from New Zealand? Seems to be the Land of M’s.

  3. chadmerkley Says:

    Hey…I could be a New Zealand author. If I wasn’t American. What are immigration laws like down there?

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