RogerBW's Blog

Artists in Crime, Ngaio Marsh 31 October 2016

1938 classic English detective fiction; sixth of Marsh's novels of Inspector Roderick Alleyn. At an informal residential art school, the model has been murdered – by a method all the students had talked about some days before.

With Gaudy Night and Busman's Honeymoon published in 1935 and 1937, it seems that Allingham and Marsh both gave thought to getting their own series' heroes hitched. But of course it wouldn't be as easy as that. Allingham had hinted at a romance for Campion as early as 1933 in Sweet Danger, but Marsh's Roderick Alleyn had by this point only had occasional hopeless attractions to actresses. With whom could he be paired?

At this stage of speculation he invariably pulled a fastidious face and thought ruefully: "Lord, lord, the vanity of the male forties." But she was very lovely, and the thought of her almost lent a little glamour to the possible expectation of the weary routine of a shipboard flirtation.

But not the Success of the Ship, whom Alleyn can't help encountering on his way back across the Pacific from New Zealand. Instead, he meets the successful painter Agatha Troy, and speaks enough art to talk sensibly about what she's working on, though they each go off thinking the other dislikes them.

So naturally when there's a murder at Troy's art school it's Alleyn who's closest to hand. The investigation is more or less interwoven with the romance, though the former certainly takes first place; Alleyn apologises repeatedly for trampling all over Troy's life and privacy, and although the blurbs may imply she's a suspect along with everyone else that idea is never given much credence. On the other hand, we know it's serious not only because of Alleyn's actions but because his mother is introduced to the series, in a letter which includes:

I have bought a hand-loom and am also breeding Alsatians.

There's a fine mixed bag of suspects: jealous lovers, jealous partners of lovers, jealous artists, all of whom had some degree of motive; but opportunities seem to have been scarcer, as the entire party went to London for the weekend (except for one who was going off on a walking-tour, and who becomes the leading suspect for that and other reasons). Blackmail becomes a consideration. I found the case fairly straightforward, but there was still a certain degree of doubt.

"The rightness or wrongness of what you have done is between yourself, your publisher, and your conscience, if such a thing exists."

Marsh has got away at last from the idea of reconstructing the crime to make the murderer give himself away, and there is a splendidly gruesome description of the aftermath of the second killing; more importantly, though, most of these people come across as real and interesting, if unpleasant. There is one significant error (someone mentions that it's twenty-five past twelve, then some paragraphs later the same person says it's eleven o'clock), and sadly Nigel Bathgate returns to be the Watson, though it's increasingly clear that he is unnecessary to the story. (DI Fox, and DS Bailey the fingerprint man, are quite sufficient as recipients of Alleyn's explanations.) Things are a little slow at times, but I don't really regard that as a problem.

All right, Marsh isn't Sayers, but this certainly fulfils my expectations of what an enjoyable Golden Age mystery should be. Followed by Death in a White Tie.

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