Clutch of Constables (1968) by Ngaio Marsh

I mentioned in a previous post that I’ve read most of Agatha Christie’s novels and something that has puzzled me a little in hindsight is why I haven’t read as many of Ngaio Marsh. I was certainly aware of her as a mystery author – she wrote 32 detective novels between 1934 and 1982, all featuring Inspector Alleyn as the detective – and my local library had a number of her books, so I guess I must have read some (I certainly recall reading “Light Thickens”) and decided not to read any more.

That didn’t bode well, but I figured that my tastes may well have changed since then (I must have been about 13 or 14 at the time) so when deciding which book to review next, I picked “Clutch of Constables” from my pile of unread old paperbacks.

This is the 25th Alleyn novel, involving his wife (Troy) as the main protagonist for the first half of the book. She, an artist by trade, has booked a last minute river cruise, only to find that the person whose place she has taken had been murdered by a professional art criminal known (unfortunately) as the Jampot, and various occurrences of odd behaviour among her fellow passengers begin to make her suspicious, until, inevitably, the first body bobs to the surface.

Up to this point, the structure of the book is rather interesting. Alleyn plays no part in the main narrative, being in the US, but his wife is writing letters to him of her suspicions. Each chapter begins with Alleyn describing the case to a body of student policemen, with a structure reminiscent of Ellery Queen in the sense that by using this, the author can indicate that something important has happened that the reader may have missed without giving away what it was.

The book loses something when Alleyn, concerned with the content of his wife’s letters, suddenly appears (at the same time as the body is discovered). One thing that is lost at this point is the character of Troy, who is unceremoniously packed off to a local pub in case things are too stressful for her. Not the strongest portrayal of a female character that I’ve ever read. With the loss of Troy, the book does get a bit duller to my eyes, and Alleyn does seem to change from point to point as to knowing what is going on to not being at all sure. It becomes clear that a number of people on the boat are guilty of something in a big (and slightly odd) art conspiracy, but which one is the murderer?

Well, if you can’t guess the murderer in this book (and it really comes down to one out of two), you won’t have worked it out. There is precisely one comment the murderer makes that implicates him or her, and if you spot it, I’d be amazed. Does this count as a fair-play mystery? Technically, yes, but to me, it’s not exactly in the spirit of the game. Guessing the murderer though… it’s pretty obvious really.

Overall the book trundles along nicely, but the ending is a massive anticlimax. Racism is touched on briefly in the book (one of the characters on the boat being black), but not in a particularly subtle way – racism’s a bad thing, in case you didn’t know. When it is revealed that only one character on the boat had absolutely nothing to do with the conspiracy, it’s not a huge surprise to find out which one. Maybe I’m being harsh, given the book was written forty years ago, but I’ve read older books that address the issue more convincingly, so I don’t think it can be completely blamed on the era.

Would I read another from the author? Well, I’ve a couple more on my shelf, and they’re fairly quick reads. Maybe I’ll give Alleyn another try in the near future – I’ve no idea if this is one of her best or worst. After all, if The Clocks was the first Poirot book that I read, I doubt I’d have read more Agatha Christie. The jury’s still out on Ngaio Marsh, awaiting more evidence.


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