RogerBW's Blog

Clutch of Constables, Ngaio Marsh 06 November 2017

1968 classic English detective fiction; twenty-fifth of Marsh's novels of Inspector Roderick Alleyn. Worn down by having to be too much in public, Agatha Troy takes a river cruise in fen country. But nobody is quite what they seem, and soon one of them will be dead.

There hasn't been much Troy in these books for a while, and although even here she's shuffled off-stage at about the two-thirds mark, this is her book in a way we haven't seen since Final Curtain. Although there's a framing narrative in which Alleyn is lecturing on the capture of a master criminal, Troy is the viewpoint character for the first and more solid part of the book. Indeed, Alleyn's arrival feels in some ways like an ending, particularly the way in which he makes it clear that he knows who the villain is… though he doesn't make an arrest immediately, and someone else dies before the book is over.

In previous closed-environment mysteries by Marsh there have been groups of fairly horrid people, most of whom turned out simply to be naturally horrid rather than criminal. Here there's something at least a bit wrong with most of the passengers, more than their surface horridness, and while I thought it pretty obvious who would turn out to be the master criminal the reasons for their all being here are well-developed.

There are more of Marsh's winking hints, similar to what we got in Dead Water:

"I got through to Superintendent Tillottson at Tollardwark. He gave me details of his talks with my wife. One detail worried me a good deal more than it did him."

Alleyn caught the inevitable glint of appreciation from the man in the second row.

"Exactly," he said.

which are never explained, and this feels like cheating; similarly, the repeated assertions by Alleyn that he knows the identity of the villain, which in a conventional detective story would happen only once and be a signal to the reader that turning the page would bring the answer to the puzzle, feel out of place.

There's a black character, and Marsh jumps into 1960s race-relations with both feet. Oh dear. She establishes that there's some difference between types of racist, which I suppose is something.

The framing story is left dangling without any conclusion, which rather robs it of any point, and there's never any explanation of jul gur obql jnf zbirq… which (apart from providing atmosphere) is the main thing about which the reader is invited to speculate.

The Troy bits are excellent, which for me makes up for shortcomings in the detection. Followed by When in Rome.

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  1. Posted by Michael Cule at 11:41am on 06 November 2017

    What, I shudder to ask, are the different types of racist according to 1960s Ngaio Marsh?

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 12:17pm on 06 November 2017

    Very broadly, "I don't like 'em", "they are Terribly Special, well done them", and "well they're not like us but some of them are at least pleasant people". The last appears to be regarded by the author as the Right Attitude.

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