Artists In Crime (1938) by Ngaio Marsh

Agatha Troy’s art school attracted all sorts, from the highs of the landed gentry to the lows of the lower classes, from as far afield as France and even Australia. But it also attracted Sonia Gluck, a life-model of dubious morals, but she is not long for the world. On Monday morning, as she is put into her standard pose by the artists, she is impaled on a booby trap.

Enter Inspector Alleyn who is staying with his mother nearby, interrupting his leave to investigate the murder. The disappearance of Garcia, a sculptor, puts him under suspicion, but Alleyn isn’t as convinced of his guilt as others. But he has another distraction on his hands – he’s only gone and fallen in love with Agatha Troy…

Do they ever address why Agatha Troy goes by the appellation “Troy” rather than “Agatha”? That’s pretty standard for a male character in the Golden Age of detective fiction but it’s rare for a female character to be treated the same way. I don’t think anyone actually calls her Agatha in this story at all…

Sorry, I digress. It’s been a while since I’ve had another go at the work of Ngaio Marsh, an author who, let’s be honest, I’ve had trouble with in the past. Trouble in the sense that I just don’t see her appeal as a mystery writer. I do see that she is good at creating interesting settings, Surfeit of Lampreys notwithstanding, and characters, with one massive exception, but the mysteries have struggled to engage me. When I’ve mentioned my struggles with Marsh in the past, Agatha Troy is often mentioned, so I thought I’d give her introduction a try. She was the best thing in Clutch of Constables (until her husband packs her off to a hotel at half-time) so this seemed a good idea.

Well, it seemed like a good idea…

The mystery is, quite frankly, disappointing. The solution to the first murder is a crushing disappointment. Let’s put off the implausibility of the trap actually working – it’s more likely to work than a poisoned green hedgehog, I suppose – but I honestly couldn’t believe in her choice of murderer. Yes, it makes sense, but it’s not particularly interesting. The second one is more intriguing, but the misdirection is clumsy and the murderer is obvious. Well, it was to me anyway…

So, no improvement in that aspect, so let’s look at the characters.

Well, they’re all pretty distinctive, but given that the list of suspects isn’t massive, I found it odd that a number of them fall by the wayside pretty quickly, which, of course, helps pin down the killer. So that just leaves the Alleyn and Troy romance, and…

… well, basically, it shows how crap Alleyn is with women when his standard chat-up line seems to be “Hello, I love you”. Plus points to Marsh for this not working desperately well, but it’s not the injection of emotion that I was hoping for.

So, all in all, another disappointment. The biggest problem is the solution to the first murder – I kept waiting for a “but this is what really happened” moment that never came – but even with putting that way to one side, it’s just an average murder mystery that needed a spark to get it going…

26 comments

  1. Marsh is clearly in the Marmite category of GAD authors. I’ve only read a few but was disappointed by all of them. And yet so many adore her stuff. And don’t even get me started on Patricia Wentworth …

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  2. My understanding is that Troy is how she’s known professionally, and the context here is professional; I’d guess she’s of a generation that insisted “I’m not a woman artist, I’m an artist.” To my mind Marsh is good at background (and God knows she provides plenty of it), just okay at characters, and not much good at the puzzle aspect. The theatrical books are her best imo.

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      • Troy must have studied at the Slade early in the 20th century. All the women students called each other by their last name only, as young men did at the time. That’s why the painter Dora Carrington is just known as “Carrington”, as she was in life.

        Nobody ever calls Troy “Agatha”.

        I’m a Marsh fan, but really dislike this book.

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  3. It’s been a long time, but I remember reading several Marsh books with pleasure (they’re probably still on a shelf somewhere in the house)… but when I recall what I liked about them, it’s the atmosphere and situation. The art school here, the theatrical milieu in some others, all provided a world to sink into. But the actual mysteries? They seemed secondary at the time, and I can’t recall anything about them now.

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  4. I can remember very little about this book, though I could say that about most books by Marsh. I do like Troy and I agree that Clutch of Constables was great until she gets sent out of the plot. Not entirely sure what she sees in Alleyn…
    I haven’t read any books by Marsh for ages and I think your review reminds me why I haven’t!
    What motivated you to read another book by her?

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    • I’m still determined to try and figure out the appeal that she has for some people. There is a reason in the very grand scheme of things, but it’s not an interesting one, but I’ll keep it to myself for the moment…

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  5. I could never get past the ‘Brer Fox’ joke directed at the sergeant. It made me cringe in the early 70s when I first discovered \Marsh, and feel seven worse now. Plus I was always disappointed at the apparent lack of any actual attraction between Troy and Alleyn.

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    • Brer (or Brother) Fox is a character from the Uncle Remus tales – genuine African folktales “as told by” a character called Uncle Remus, a kindly old freed slave on a Southern plantation. (Joel Chandler Harris, 1881) The fox is always outsmarted by the rabbit! Unfortunately the stories are written in dialect.

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  6. Having only read Spinsters in Jeopardy before, I’ve read a three-in-one over the last few months made up of Death in Ecstasy, Vintage Murder, and Artists in Crime, and the latter was easily the best of them, and overall I quite liked it. But I do now understand where “dragging the marshes” comes from!

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  7. Is Marsh really marmite? She was historically considered as one of the gour Crime Queens but it seems that just about everyone loathes her nowadays. Infact, I don’t think I have ever seen a positive review of her by any GAD blogger…

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  8. I quite enjoyed Death in a White Tie and, er, I think Overture to Death (though that one needed a map). If, y’know, you’re looking for recommendations.

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    • I might look at White Tie as it continues the unconvincing (so far) romance. I’ve read Overture and yes, it’s the best I’ve read so far, but that’s hardly a ringing endorsement

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      • Oh dear, Overture is one of the worst! Try the one that follows, Death and the Dancing Footman. A real old country house plot where the characters are even /snowed in/. The party of mutual enemies has been deliberately gathered by the house’s owner. His sidekick is a disabled surrealist playwright. Now read on…

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    • I’ve got Death in a White Tie coming up as it came in a job lot of Library of Crime books. But that will probably be it for Marsh for me – unless I see more of the three-in-one volumes in charity shops – I can’t resist matching sets!

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  9. I own (in the loft somewhere) all of Ngaio Marsh’s detective stories, She was very popular at one time. Her work is not the worst I have ever read but I think they should be read. I suppose it’s a kind of calibration !

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  10. One of the oddly unpleasant tics of ARTISTS IN CRIME that I recall from a read last year is the way everyone refers to “the model” once she is killed, as if she had no name worth remembering. Not even “the victim,” but “the model.” I find some of Marsh enjoyable, especially when she sets up a complex knot of characters in a situation, but she seems snobbish even by Golden Age standards.

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  11. I found it interesting (amusing even) how Marsh, who is somewhat puritan at times, sees nude painting as something completely wholesome and innocent.

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