J. K. Rowling and Ngaio Marsh

We know from Rowling’s interviews with fellow authors Val McDermid and J. J. Marsh that she both loves and re-reads Ngaio Marsh among the ‘big four’ of crime authors:

Val McDermid: How did that love affair with crime start for you?

JKR: Probably…I know I was reading Christies when I was quite young. All of the Big Four – Marsh, Allingham, Christie and Sayers – I’ve read and loved….

Val McDermid Interviews Robert Galbraith at Harrosgate Festival

J. J. Marsh: Are there any books you re-read?

JKR: Lots and lots.  When I’m working, I find it incredibly difficult to read new books (although when I’m between my own novels, I devour other people’s).  So if I’m writing, I re-read.  I’ve re-read all of Jane Austen so often I can actually visualize the type on the page; I love Colette, Katherine Mansfield, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, E. F. Benson and P. G. Wodehouse, all of whom are always beside my bed.  I read a lot of diaries and biographies, too; Chips Channon’s also a fixture on the bedside bookshelves, as is the afore-mentioned Secrets of the Flesh, and everything by Frances Donaldson is eminently re-readable.

J. J. Marsh — J. K. Rowling Interview, August 2013

This post attempts to argue that we have some non-textual evidence to suggest that to Rowling, Ngaio Marsh is a special case, certainly among crime authors. Join me after the jump to find out more!

One of my guilty pleasures during the first Covid lock down was trying to decipher the titles of JKR’s colour coded library:

 

Rowling posted the above video on her twitter account in April 2020. While many were happily opining that sorting your books by colour was either inspired, or should be criminally sanctioned, I was busy trying to identify which books were among her collection. Thanks to the large proportion of collector’s and limited editions that are still in print, it was possible to identify a fair proportion, even though the text on the spine was not always legible. It is always interesting to know what an author is reading, and what she has read and can occasionally identify when and where an idea has germinated from source to plot. One set of books however remained stubbornly indecipherable, and the fact that they were obviously well thumbed made this lack of identification particularly annoying. As I complained to the Hogwarts Professor moderator channel:

Together with a puzzle. There are 54 orange spine Penguin Classics, 3 black spine Penguins, and at least 11 green spine ones. None of the titles are legible and the the series is so large even title length doesn’t identify them. There are also at least 3 Agatha Christie paperbacks identifiable by the distinctive signature at the top of the spine, two very thick collected volumes and what appears to be one novel length one. My puzzle is this, the only other identifiable paperback series is in the capture below. The top is colour coded in some way, the Author is in type and is different for each volume and the title is in script. I can find no series of paperbacks to match. The design seems possibly romance, but it isn’t one of the major publishers.

Fortunately for us Professor Groves possesses some Ngaio Marsh books which, although of a different series has similarly colourful spines. This allowed me to identify an edition that was published to celebrate the centenary of Marsh’s birth, by Harper Collins in 1995. This is not the first physical evidence we have that Rowling is a Marsh reader, but now we have a set purchased when she was in Edinburgh and after she had finished the first draft of Philosopher’s Stone, but most likely before she was published. This is the set that was read, and re-read when she writing – constantly beside her bed.

The titles are still difficult to decipher, but for what it’s worth these are my guesses- from let to right:

Book 1 Black as He’s Painted
Book 2 Photo Finish
Book 3 ?
Book 4 When in Rome?
Book 5 ?
Book 6 Artists in Crime
Book 7 Colour Scheme
Book 8 Scales of Justice
Book 9 False Scent
Book 10 Spinsters in Jeopardy
Can you spot any titles I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments down below.

Comments

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    Alas! But, tangentially, I’ve just started my first Gladys Mitchell (The Twenty-Third Man) and wonder if she is yet another detective-story writer JKR reads? (Her Wikipedia article includes ” Her plots and settings were unconventional with […] witchcraft (notably in The Devil at Saxon Wall [1935] and The Worsted Viper [1943]) and the supernatural (naiads and Nessie, ghosts and Greek gods) as recurrent themes.”)

  2. Wonderful post, Nick, as always!

    You ask about Marsh titles you “have missed” and I certainly cannot make out anything from the library photo that are not on your remarkable list. So many Marsh titles to read…

    The one Marsh novel you don’t mention, though, is one of the few books she has displayed publicly as one she reads in her bath tub, namely, Off With His Head, aka Death of a Fool. It is on the JKRowling.com home page margins and was discussed both in the run-up to Lethal White’s publication (it features a white horse…) and in the posts dedicated to the epononymous website’s marginalia.

    This book is a treasury of Rowling tropes and may have been a model for The Silkworm, the first Strike novel in the chronological order of their conception according to Rowling. I’d say James’ Skull Beneath the Skin, a titular reference to Webster’s Duchess of Malfi via T. S. Eliot, is its only competitor in this regard (hat tip to Beatrice Groves on that reference, one she made in a 2017 discussion on the HogPro moderator channels).

    We’re obliged, consequently, I think to put this extra-textual evidence for Rowling’s affection for Marsh right at the top of the list (and to check if either Book 3 or 5 on the shelf match up binding color wise with this edition of Off With His Head?).

    Again, great post and incredible detective work! Marsh is gaining great ground on Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and Margery Allingham (the last being the least well known of the four Queens of Crime and supposedly Rowling’s favorite), as Rowling influences!

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    Possible detail of Gladys Mitchell interest I should have mentioned: her detective is Beatrice Lestrange Bradley – might one say, ‘hmm trisyllabic ‘Classical’/Latinate/Romance given name + Lestrange?’

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