Key Points:

There's a fabulous photo of writer Ngaio Marsh in the Herald's photo archives, taken in 1962, showing her artfully posed in her kitchen, wearing a pinny over an elegant dress as she allegedly "prepares a meal". It doesn't look right.

You can imagine Marsh went along with the charade to be a good sport, but a domestic goddess she was not. Her biographer, Joanne Drayton, laughs when she sees the picture. "She didn't do much that was domestic, I can tell you. She liked a good drink - she was a good strong social drinker when it was appropriate - and she smoked."

Drayton probably knows as much about Marsh's life as anyone these days, having spent the past year as National Library Fellow researching for Ngaio Marsh: Her Life in Crime, which will be released on September 1. The most niggling question that still puzzles her was, why has Christchurch-born Marsh, whose Detective Alleyn novels sold more than two million copies worldwide from the 30s through to 1982, when she died, virtually been erased from New Zealand's cultural memory?

At her peak, Marsh was one of the four Queens of Crime who dominated the genre, along with Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Margery Allingham. Her name lives on in Christchurch, where her home in the Cashmere Hills is preserved as a private museum and the Ngaio Marsh Theatre honours her considerable achievements as a theatre director. Aside from that, she appears to have fallen off the radar.

Drayton, senior lecturer in art and design history at Unitec's School of Design, first got the idea for writing a Ngaio Marsh biography from Virginia Woolf's great-niece, Henrietta Garnett, whom she met after contacting her to clear the copyright for an image for her 2005 book on Frances Hodgkins.

After a long email correspondence which developed into a friendship, Drayton finally met Garnett in London. "When I was visiting her one night, we started talking about Ngaio Marsh, probably our most well known writer. She was enamoured with those books and Alleyn. She rattled off the names and I suddenly thought, 'God, this is crazy.' I decided Ngaio was so underestimated here - a lot of people would never have heard of her.

Essentially, a lot of the culture that she produced is appreciated somewhere else which is quite sad. She seriously has a profile in Britain." A Ngaio Marsh biography wasn't an entirely novel idea. Marsh herself reluctantly wrote an autobiography, Black Beech and Honeydew, in 1966, which she updated in 1982. Both were notable for their lack of personal details and revelations.

Furthermore, any writer attempting to research her life is hindered by the fact that Marsh systematically destroyed her papers. As Drayton notes in the book, towards the end of Marsh's life her housekeeper "was given piles of documents - letters, notes, handwritten manuscripts and even photographs - to take down to the incinerator to burn" each day. "This was her final purge." "I don't think she wanted someone to write about her life," says Drayton. "She wanted control over that. She gave that version in Black Beech and Honeydew but she felt she hadn't done an adequate job and felt that in some way she had failed. She didn't reveal enough of her life and her life was quite complicated, with the relationships that she established."

However, there is still plenty of material remaining in the form of surviving letters, clippings, radio and television archives from the BBC, Radio NZ and the Alexander Turnbull Library Oral History, as well as interviews Drayton conducted with Marsh's friends and colleagues: major theatre players like Court Theatre maestro Elric Hopper whom she mentored as a young actor, actor Jonathan Elsom, writer Bruce Harding and many others.

Because Marsh never married, and had close friendships with women "companions", most notably her lifelong friend Sylvia Fox, it was a lazy leap for some to conclude she was an Antipodean George Sand. She dressed in a "masculine" way - that is, wore trousers, daring for the Christchurch of those times - and she had a distinctly deep voice. "She denied flatly that she was a lesbian all through her life," says Drayton. "Even having a female companion doesn't necessarily mean that she was gay ... but I have left the reader to be the final detective in this book." MARSH, BORN in 1895, was the only child of Rose and bank clerk Henry Marsh, who, in the context of colonial Canterbury, were what Marsh herself described as "have-nots".

Henry's smartest financial move - but not until he was in his early 40s - was to buy a section on the Cashmere Hills and hire Rose's cousin, architect Samuel Hurst Seagar, to build a four-bedroom bungalow called Marton Cottage, Marsh's home for the rest of her life - except for her long sojourns "back home" in London. "Ngaio Marsh was very much the product of a class system.

A lot of that stuff went on in Christchurch," observes Drayton. "But she is quite fascinating because she didn't come from privilege - she was more from the margins. It was her talent and personality that were her ticket to social mobility. "Being the only child, the parents adored her and focused all this attention on her. It was remarkable she was so balanced. The mother was quite a disciplinarian and he kind of hung around the edges. The mother has had a lot of bad press but I can't help admiring what she produced in Ngaio. She may have been controlling but the intensity of the input gave Ngaio her beginning."

Before her interests in theatre and writing emerged, Marsh had a passion for art and studied painting at the Canterbury College School of Art from 1915-19, forming friendships with women who later became leading artists - Olivia Spencer Bower, Evelyn Page, Rata Lovell-Smith and Rhona Haszard. But, as Drayton, writes, "Ngaio was a relatively pedestrian painter and her talent glowed dimly in a constellation of stars". She felt her future lay in London, and she sailed for England in 1928. Her first book, A Man Lay Dead, was published in 1934, introducing her attractive upper-class detective Roderick Alleyn and later his wife, an accomplished artist called Troy.

"That's what Ngaio wanted to do and that's why Troy is so fascinating," says Drayton. "She has projected her ambition to be an artist. It gives a vividness to her writing. Her descriptive writing is superb, setting scenes, creating characters, sometimes just with a few words, an impressionist brushstroke. She sketches in a character and nails it." Like the writings of her peers - Christie, Sayers and Allingham - Marsh's detective writing is of a particular period, often featuring a cast of upper-class English characters.

Only a few are set in New Zealand, using the device that Alleyn is on the trail of spies and murderers during World War II. "The books when she brings Alleyn to New Zealand - it's funny how he trails behind her," says Drayton. "That was uncanny. As I started to write I realised how immediately her life related to the books. She gets on a boat, he gets on a boat. She was afraid of flying.

The one extensive flight she did was a disaster, to Australia, a rollercoaster. She used that space of travelling on a ship to write."

In New Zealand, Marsh was appalled by the lack of professional theatre and in 1943, she directed Hamlet for Canterbury University College Drama Society at Little Theatre, followed by a touring production of Hamlet and Othello. From the 40s through to the 70s, she pushed through scores of productions including A Midsummer Night's Dream, Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, Twelfth Night and Henry V. She formed the British Commonwealth Theatre Company in 1951 which staged Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author, receiving reviews headlined "Audience Spellbound". But she never achieved her lifelong ambition of seeing the establishment of a national theatre. Her parallel life as crime writer continued apace.

In 1949, Collins republished 10 cheap editions of her novels, each with print runs of 100,000, making her the second woman writer of detective stories - after Agatha Christie - to have her books republished in a total edition of one million. Drayton calls them the "Marsh Murder Millions", which makes it all the more puzzling why they faded away so quickly after her death.

"I partly think it's because there is an active snobbery in New Zealand, a kind of intellectual snobbery which designates a lower position to popular culture which was the area she was feeding into," is Drayton's theory. "But she was feeding into it with some real eloquence and trying to change the genre. How many people have had that stature? She climbed a mountain too, in a way.

There might have been three other women on it but she sold more than one million books at least. We were trying to figure out if she was the best-selling author ever in New Zealand. I'd say she must be. There was the Marsh Murder Millions, plus the sales of the other books as well - we are talking 30,000 copies often in the first run." Perhaps the perceived snobbery towards Marsh - who was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1966 - was because her novels were so British; because she clearly regarded England as "home".

"She was part of a generation that did regard England as home," explains Drayton, "but she could never explain why she kept coming back. She was a New Zealander who had romantic notions about literature and culture that were British and I think she would not be alone in that, even today. But her sense of New Zealand was embedded and she kept coming back. She could have easily moved over there, where people really valued her for her writing.

"She was quite a positive person but I think privately she was quite hurt. She was not entirely honest either. She played down the significance to her of those books but they were quite special to her." When it comes to the final analysis, Drayton says Marsh remains an enigma. She found a letter in the National Library by one of Marsh's previous biographers, or attempted biographer, saying, "At the end I feel I don't really know Ngaio Marsh." "I feel as though I know her really well," says Drayton, "but I do feel as though there is some of her that is mysterious. Whether that is a sphinx without a secret, whether there is no mystery there, I don't know.

In her genre, everything had to be wrapped up and we all know life doesn't work like that. This book doesn't either. I would wrap her up if I had some of those pieces but you might find they are clear anyway." o Joanne Drayton will give a talk and reading from Ngaio Marsh: Her Life in Crime (HarperCollins $59.99 hardback) at The Booklover, 128 Hurstmere Rd, Takapuna on September 10 at 6pm.

STRAIGHT TALKER

My brother-in-law, Ray Neumann, designed the set for Ngaio Marsh's production of Macbeth at the Civic Theatre in Christchurch in 1962. James Laurenson, who went on to forge a successful career in Britain, played the lead. "Ngaio Marsh was great," Neumann recalls. "Every production that she did, she had a book made with, on the right-hand side, the score of the play, double-spaced. On the left-hand side she had elevations of where people were going to be and what action was going to take place and the drawings were absolutely fantastic.

It was like a Book of Hours, mostly pencil drawings but occasionally colour. "I was in stage two at arts school and I had done stage design at school. When Ngaio Marsh first met me, she looked me straight in the eye and said, 'What colour is Macbeth?' I'd never even thought about it. I said 'oily green'. She said, 'That's strange, I thought it was blue-grey.' She didn't butt in ever, and I went ahead and painted the thing oily green, with moss and rocks.

On the opening night she came over - she was a person of few words - and said, 'I think Macbeth was oily green', and turned around and walked away. "She drove a black XK120 Jag with white sheepskin upholstery and she'd bring her lunch each day - chicken sandwiches, a bottle of lager and a cigar. She would consume the things in the same order every day, a real ritual. "We did the rehearsals in an old brewery in a Christchurch winter.

The only thing that could heat the place was an oil-fired outdoor heater, so after the first three-quarters of an hour you could hardly see across the room. "She did a prizegiving speech at the high school where I was teaching. She said the biggest bugbear to human nature was the microphone, so she ceremoniously removed the mike off the stage and then stood there.

Her projection was miles clearer than any mike. "She spoke with a very theatrical stage accent, but she was a real New Zealander, and yet most of the crime things were very British, much more British than she was. She was quite analytical, she would cut through the bullshit, and she wouldn't put up with small talk."