Ngaio Marsh – Artists in Crime (1938)

On his way back from New Zealand, where he has been solving the case of Vintage Murder, Alleyn meets the artist Agatha Troy (hereafter always known as Troy) on the boat and promptly falls in love. When she arrives back in England Troy goes to her house at Tatler’s End where she is running a course for a disparate group of artists. One of these artists, Malmsley, is doing a series of illustrations, one of which involves a drawing of a woman who is murdered by being thrust down onto a knife which the wife of the woman’s lover (who is doing the thrusting) has fixed up beneath the couch. The artists discuss the practicalities of this and carry out an experiment. When they return to the course after a weekend break their model, Sonia, is thrust down onto the couch and someone has, of course, fixed the knife in a way that she is murdered. Alleyn who is staying with his mother, who happens to live nearby, is immediately called to the scene. 

It is I suppose difficult for Marsh aficionados not to have a certain fondness for this book on the basis that it sees the introduction of Troy. At another level however, it is the last of her weak early books – her next would be her breakthrough Death in a White Tie, which would introduce a run of quite brilliant productivity, at least 10 books of which the weakest are good and most excellent. But all this does not hide the fact that Artists in Crime is not especially good. The first problem is one to which Nick Fuller has called attention, for instance in his review of Final Curtain; Marsh is far too influenced by and in the shadow of Sayers. This influence is not beneficial. Troy and Alleyn’s romance is at this point a pale copy of the Harriet/Wimsey romance and Alleyn’s mother is a copy of Wimsey’s mother. Beyond this it is something of a commonplace to point out that Alleyn is in many ways the weakest point in the Marsh oeuvre and that many of her books gain their strength in spite of, rather than because ,of Alleyn, who’s arrival on the scene is to be dreaded. But this arrival was in later books often at a fairly advanced point of the narrative. As Marsh developed her technique of using different protagonists – the young New Zealand girls of Surfeit of Lampreys and Opening Night or Troy herself in Final Curtain and Clutch of Constables, among others – she grew more interesting, assured, personal and complete. Here in Artists in Crime she is till struggling with a very formulaic approach – the murder is committed early on and much of the rest of the book consists of a series of static interviews and a tedious gathering of forensic evidence. There are signs of the breakthrough, as there have been in earlier books; we have an attempt at the portrayal of a milieu (the artists). Actually it is worth pursuing this a little further because it offers us comparisons to two other books which deal with artists – Sayers’ Five Red Herrings1931 and Allingham’s Death of a Ghost1934. The Sayers presents us with ‘artists’ who are about as lively, realistic or interesting as card-board cut-outs. It features on the other hand a very detailed classic plot with lots of details of alibis and so on. Allingham by contrast has a very loose plot but some wonderfully loopy characterisation and some very interesting speculation about art and forgery and so on. Now Marsh’s strengths lay in the direction of Allingham. But here she is still too conventional, too under the shadow of Sayers. When she gets away from this we can see the glimpses of the greatness that lay ahead. This is most clearly shown in the second murder, which is gruesome, vividly imagined and described.

The fascination of these early Marsh books is in watching how she very slowly develops her style, her confidence, her individuality. But it is a slow, almost imperceptible process, until suddenly, bang!, there is Death in a White Tie. Artists in Crime remains mainly interesting for the introduction of Troy and the fact that it is the last ‘early’ Marsh.

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