Ngaio Marsh, if you haven’t read her stuff, was one of the great mystery novelists. She wrote detective novels featuring her great creation, Inspector Roderick Alleyn, from the ’30s through to the ’80s. She was more prolific than Sayers and more literary than Christie, though not as colourful as either.
One of the things I had always noticed about her books was the exotic names she’d give to her female characters. On the average, there’d be one female character per book with a name that you’d never expect to see any real person wear around. Of course, Marsh’s own name, “Ngaio”, is quite uncommon outside New Zealand; it’s a Maori word. It’s easy to imagine a connection between Marsh choosing an unusual name for herself (“Ngaio” was actually her middle name; her first name was “Edith”) and choosing unusual names for her characters.
Inspector Alleyn, for instance. I always have to look up how to pronounce it. Or his wife, Agatha Troy: a standard enough name, but she’s called “Troy”, not “Agatha”, which is unusual.
When I say a name is unusual, I might mean several things: a word not usually used as a name pressed into service, or some noticeable alliteration or rhyming, or simply a name that’s really rare or elaborate. Or sounds cooler than real-life names tend to sound. I don’t consider a name that originates in a language other than English to be unusual just because it’s not English, but, in a classic detective story set in England partway through the 20th century, it might be just unusual enough to be the most unusual one in that book. (Note that Marsh set quite a few of her mysteries in theatres, so some of these unusual names are stage names, which means they have an excuse for being larger-than-life.)
So I went through all the Inspector Alleyn novels and short stories, and picked out the most wild-ass women’s names from each book, and listed them below. But as I was doing so I noticed that a lot of the male characters had equally weird names, so I thought I’d list those too.
I’m not criticizing Marsh for giving her characters these names. I just find it interesting.
A Man Lay Dead (1934): Nothing of interest here. Angela North, Rosamund Grant, Marjorie Wilde. She hasn’t really found her rhythm yet.
Enter a Murderer (1935): It’s between Janet Emerald and Dulcie Deamer.
The Nursing Home Murder (1935): Still finding the range. The pick of this novel is either Cicely O’Callaghan or a hospital matron named Sister Marigold.
Death in Ecstasy (1936): Dagmar Candour.
Vintage Murder (1937): Pretty conventional again. Carolyn Dacres, Valerie Gaynes, Susan Max.
Artists in Crime (1938): First appearance of Agatha Troy, but the real standouts in this book are Valmai Seacliff, and, if you need more, Sonia Gluck and Phillida Lee.
Death in a White Tie (1938): I dunno. Lady Evelyn Carrados, I guess.
Overture to Death (1939): Idris Campanula. It was probably old Idris who inspired me to do this list in the first place.
Death at the Bar (1940): Decima Moore.
Surfeit of Lampreys (1941): The sisters Frid and Patch Lamprey. (Actually Friede and Patricia, but Marsh does use nicknames.)
Death and the Dancing Footman (1942): What would you rather: Sandra Compline, Chloris Wynne, Elise Lisse, or Lady Hersey Ablington? They’ll all do.
Colour Scheme (1943): Probably a maid named Huia. It’s a Maori name, and so not necessarily unusual, but I’d rather that than Barbara Claire.
Died in the Wool (1945): Ursula Harme.
Final Curtain (1947): Millamant Ancred. (But note also her relatives, Jenetta and Fenella Ancred, and young Panty Ancred (nicknamed for Patricia. What’s Marsh have against Patricias?).
Swing Brother Swing (1949): Several to choose from. Cecile de Fouteaux Pastern and Bagott (that’s all one name; “Pastern and Bagott” is the surname), Félicité de Suze, and Carlisle Wayne.
Opening Night (1951): Martyn Tarne, although there’s also Gay Gainsford.
Spinsters in Jeopardy (1954): Slim pickings here; Annabella Wells, I guess.
Scales of Justice (1955): Kitty Cartarette.
Off With His Head (1957): Camilla Campion.
Singing in the Shrouds (1959): You can have Jemima Carmichael, or possibly Mrs. Dillington-Blick.
False Scent (1960): Anelida Lee, or maybe Pinky Cavendish.
Hand in Glove (1962): Let’s say Nicola Maitland-Mayne. Or Moppett Ralston (nickname for Mary).
Dead Water (1964): Elspeth Cost.
Death at the Dolphin (1967): Destiny Meade.
Clutch of Constables (1968): Hazel Rickerby-Carrick.
When in Rome (1970): Not much here. Sophy Jason?
Tied Up in Tinsel (1972): Cressida Tottenham.
Black As He’s Painted (1974): Xenoclea Sanskrit.
Last Ditch (1977): No obvious winners, but you can have Julia, Selina, Julietta, or Carlotta Pharamond, or Dulcie Harkness, or Susie de Waite.
Grave Mistake (1978): Verity Preston or Prunella Foster.
Photo Finish (1980): Isabella Sommita.
Light Thickens (1982): There seems to be some kind of minor character named “Rangi”, which I can’t imagine what it’s short for.
“Death on the Air”: Phillipa Tonks.
“I Can Find My Way Out”: Coralie Bourne or Dendra Gay.
“Chapter and Verse: The Little Copplestone Mystery”: Nobody really. Fanny Wagstaff?
A Man Lay Dead (1934): Hubert Handesley.
Enter a Murderer (1935): Arthur Surbonadier.
The Nursing Home Murder (1935): Very ordinary names in this book. Derek O’Callaghan?
Death in Ecstasy (1936): Raoul de Ravigne, or maybe Jasper Garnette.
Vintage Murder (1937): Hailey Hambledon.
Artists in Crime (1938): Basil Pilgrim.
Death in a White Tie (1938): Colombo Dimitri.
Overture to Death (1939): Jocelyn Jernigham.
Death at the Bar (1940): Nobody really stands out. I’ll take Sebastian Parish.
Surfeit of Lampreys (1941): There’s a chauffeur named Giggle.
Death and the Dancing Footman (1942): Aubrey Mandrake.
Colour Scheme (1943): Dikon Bell or Septimus Falls.
Died in the Wool (1945): Fabian Losse.
Final Curtain (1947): Cedric Ancred.
Swing Brother Swing (1949): Breezy Bellairs, Happy Hart, or Sydney Skelton.
Opening Night (1951): Parry Percival.
Spinsters in Jeopardy (1954): Carbury Glande.
Scales of Justice (1955): Octavius Danberry-Phinn.
Off With His Head (1957): Nobody really. Ralph Stayne?
Singing in the Shrouds (1959): Aubyn Dale.
False Scent (1960): Bertie Saracen.
Hand in Glove (1962): Either Percival Pyke Period or Bimbo Dodds.
Dead Water (1964): Ives Nankivell.
Death at the Dolphin (1967): Peregrine Jay.
Clutch of Constables (1968): Mmm, maybe the Rev. J. de B. Lazenby. (Dunno what the J and B stand for.)
When in Rome (1970): Hamilton Sweet.
Tied Up in Tinsel (1972): Hilary Bill-Tasman or Frederick Fleaton Forrester.
Black As He’s Painted (1974): Not much to choose from. Samuel Whipplestone?
Last Ditch (1977): Jasper Pharamond or Cuthbert Harkness.
Grave Mistake (1978): Walter Cloudesley or Basil Schramm.
Photo Finish (1980): Montague V. Reece.
Light Thickens (1982): Dougal Macdougal.
“Death on the Air”: Septimus Tonks.
“I Can Find My Way Out”: Canning Cumberland.
“Chapter and Verse: The Little Copplestone Mystery”: Richard De’ath.