Three Grand Dames of Mystery: “Artists in Crime”

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Artists in CrimeDetective Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn is on his way back to England after a year abroad for his health in Artists in Crime by Ngaio Marsh, published in 1938. At the port in Suva, Fiji, Alleyn comes across a woman on his ship, painting and cursing. Impressed at the way her painting of the port catches the sense of the port rather than just the image of the location, Alleyn becomes intrigued by the artist, who initially mistakes him for a vulgar critic prone to the platitude, “I don’t pretend to know much about art, but I know what I like.” She feels a bit chagrined to learn that Alleyn actually proves himself knowledgable about art. Soon Alleyn realizes that the woman is the great English artist Agatha Troy, and he finds himself attracted to the woman, but she shows little interest in him.

Upon arriving home in England, Troy gets to work with her art classes, with eight students, all advanced in their art, and a model with a bad attitude. They create a pose for everyone to draw or paint based upon an illustration one student is doing for a client, which shows a woman being murdered by a hidden knife as she lies down. Sonia Gluck, the model, complains vociferously about the pose, which she finds uncomfortable, with all the artists complaining that Sonia won’t stay still, creating difficulty for them to do their painting.

In the meantime, Alleyn has been spending time with his mother before resuming his duties at Scotland Yard when he gets a call asking him to return three days early and investigate a murder that has happened close to his mother’s home. He starts to panic when he learns that the murder has taken place at Agatha Troy’s studio, but fortunately for him, Troy is safe. It is Sonia, the model, who has died. After a long weekend when most members of the group have gone to an art show, while the newly engaged couple, the Honourable Basil Pilgrim and Valmay Seacliffe, go to visit Basil’s family. And Wolfe Garcia, a sculptor who created the models in clay before carving them in marble, has left to go to his new studio for the marblework. Upon starting back to work, Valmay places Sonia in her position, not knowing that someone has placed a knife in the throne used for her to pose on, leading to the death of the model.

Alleyn finds this case one of his most difficult yet, as he becomes personally interested in Troy, causing his need to search through all of Troy’s belongings and read through all her letters to seem highly distasteful. And Troy finds herself upset at the case, in particular the fact that the murderer must be someone who has been living with and studying under her, especially given her horror at capital punishment and knowledge that the student who did this will most likely be executed. As a result, Troy pushes Alleyn away from her, despite his growing attraction to her and his mother’s attempts to bring then subtly together. The case develops further in what becomes a rather gruesome development. Alleyn must use his wits to come to a resolution even if it means losing the hope of winning Troy.

This book is generally well-received, probably because everyone is so thrilled finally for Troy to enter the scene. Alleyn has had romantic interludes in earlier books, most notably in Enter a Murderer and Vintage Murder, but they feel artificial. However, with Troy, Alleyn has to work for the woman, who suits him much better than the actresses of the aforementioned books. In addition, Alleyn comes across as much more human in this book than in his previous ones.

It is interesting that Marsh’s publishers did not want her to create a love interest for Alleyn besides the momentary ones of earlier books. But the creation of Troy was wildly popular with Marsh’s audience, allowing the author to keep returning to the painter. It is also of interest to learn that besides being a famous writer and a decorated theater producer, she also tried her hand at painting but found herself unable to support herself with art, so she turned to Troy to be the artist she could not become.

This is the first Ngaio Marsh book narrated by Nadia May, who is one of my favorite narrators. I really love her performance of these books, as she brings Alleyn and Troy to life. I do find it annoying that she tends to pronounce the detective’s name as Al-ain, which is a reasonable assumption of the pronunciation of Alleyn. But Marsh has written in more than one place that the name is pronounced Allen. May fixes her mispronunciation in other books, but I wish she had done her research into the name from the start. However, this doesn’t do anything to hinder my enjoyment of listening to the book.

Artists in Crime demonstrates Marsh’s building up the quality of her writing after her first few books. It has a creative setting and murder, along with a strong conclusion. I give this book four stars.

To purchase this book for yourself, click here on Amazon.

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