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Artists In Crime

Artists In Crime – Ngaio Marsh

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have been struggling with Ngaio Marsh’s Inspector Alleyn books. This is the sixth, published in 1938, and is the best so far. Perhaps it is because it is almost as much a love story as a piece of detective fiction. We are introduced to Agatha Troy, later to become Mrs Roderick Alleyn.   

The book starts with Alleyn making his way back from his sojourn in New Zealand, a busman’s holiday as he was dragooned in to solve the murder featured in Vintage Murder. It being the 1930s he makes his journey by boat and after leaving Fiji the sleuth has an awkward encounter with a young artist, a Royal Academician no less, who is painting a scene of the harbour. Despite the awkwardness of the first encounter, they strike a friendship of sorts and discover that they will not be too far from each other when they get to Blighty. Troy has an art school at her country home, Tatler’s End, which is near the home of Alleyn’s home with whom he will be staying to complete his recuperation.

So what you will of Marsh, but her murders are nothing short of ingenious. The artist’s model, Sonia Gluck, is impaled on a knife driven through the modelling dais in a reconstruction of a scene that one of the artists is illustrating for a book? There is the usual collection of suspects each with a set of plausible motives. Was it the down-on-his-luck, drug addict sculptor who had an eye for Gluck? Was it one of the female artists in a fit of jealousy because of Sonia’s apparent success with the men? Was it even Troy herself? Blackmail, poison and red herrings galore make for a tricky puzzle for the police to solve.

Inevitably, Alleyn, even though he is on sick leave, is dragged in to investigate, presenting him with a considerable dilemma. Will his growing affections for Agatha Troy cloud his judgment and impede his investigations? What if she is the murderer?

Inevitably, Nigel Bathgate puts in an appearance. As a member of the fourth estate Bathgate has access to some pretty sensitive information which, surely, no senior police officer would allow to happen, and is deployed to interrogate the suspects in an unofficial and clearly inappropriate manner. Nevertheless, Alleyn and his team, with Bathgate in tow, get their collective minds around the problem, sort the wheat from the chaff, and unmask the culprit.

Marsh keeps the mystery going and there are enough twists and turns to satisfy all but the most demanding reader. I had guessed who the likely culprit was but was not quite sure until the denouement. That is the hallmark of a successful crime novel.

The love interest progresses apace and it is fairly easy to anticipate the eventual outcome of that strand of the story. A heart-warming aspect of the story is Alleyn’s relationship with his mother, that sheds a light on a different and softer side of his personality. The characterisation of Alleyn seems to have moved on and he seems a more rounded individual than in earlier books. Again, another reason to like the book.

Surprisingly, for a writer who went out of her way to denigrate the racist attitudes of her country folk, she hailed from New Zealand, in Vintage Murder, Marsh lapses into lazy stereotyping and unfortunate racist language early on in the book. Perhaps she wrote it in a hurry and her lapses failed to be picked up by her editor. Unfortunately, these things go with the territory of books from the early 20th century and if you are going to be offended to the point of throwing the book down in disgust, you perhaps would be better off not reading fiction from this era. Literature opens a window to the attitudes of the time, not those that prevail today.

I enjoyed this book.