Three Grand Dames of Mystery: “Clutch of Constables”

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in Clutch of Constables by Ngaio Marsh, the greatest painter in England, Agatha Troy Alleyn, has been at a show of her artwork in Northumberland when she spots a sign at a travel agency that a single cabin on the river cruiser M.V. Zodiac is suddenly available. So on impulse, she takes the berth, transporting her into a big adventure. With her husband, Chief Superintendent Roderick Alleyn, traveling in America on Scotland Yard business, Troy sets off to get to know her fellow passengers and conveys her experiences to Rory in letters. With eight passengers on the Zodiac, Troy finds that the lonely and desperate Hazel Rickaby-Carrick spends all her time writing in het diary; lepidopterist Kaley Bard is a charming bit of a rogue trying to seduce Troy, the American brother and sister Mr. and Miss Hewson are obsessed with antiquing, the Australian vicar Lazenby is missing one eye and doesn’t seem to act like a religious man, the British Mr. Pollack is full of racist hatred, and the half-British, half-Ethiopian Dr. Natoush carries himself as a noble gentleman.

Things get off to a peaceful start until the first day when Troy, thrilled to be surrounded by the scenes from a famous early 19th century painter, cries out, “It’s swarming with Constables! A whole clutch of Constables!” Until the passengers realize that Troy refers to the painter John Constable, someone seems to panic, though Troy can’t identity whom. When Troy sees in the newspaper that the one who originally booked her cabin, J.K.Z. Andropolous, was discovered murdered, she calls Alleyn’s partner, Inspector Fox, who sends her to the local police because the murdered man was known to be an associate of worldwide- wanted multi- murderer known as the Jampot. Could the Jampot be on the Zodiac himself?

Each day something strange but minor occurs, such as a pair of motorcyclists who seem to follow the boat. Miss Rickaby-Carrick loses her diary overboard one day and panicks, forcing Lazenby to dive in and retrieve the diary, and Troy feels almost certain that she saw him tear out the last page or two. As they leave the boat that night, Miss Rickaby-Carrick tries to get Troy’s attention about something curious she witnessed, but a migraine prevents Troy from being able to listen to her. The next morning, Miss Rickaby-Carrick is gone. The boat gets a telegram eventually that she has been called to the side of a sick friend, which seems suspicious to Troy, but mollifies everyone else. Then that night, the Hewson twins come back from an antiquing trip with a find of what looks like an undiscovered Constable painting. Things get more dramatic when Troy sees the body of Miss Rickaby-Carrick floating in the water the next day. This calls in Alleyn, who has returned early from America, to investigate the case.

Clutch of Constables uses a creative narrative method, opening each chapter with the next part of a lecture that Alleyn is giving in the police college. Alleyn recounts events from his perspective as they occurred, focusing on the search for the Jampot and presenting the evidence that the police had discovered during the course of the case. He challenges the new detectives to make deductions from the evidence. Then, the narrative switches to a regular format of observing the events from an omniscient viewpoint. Then, periodically, Troy writes letters to her husband, in which we see events from her perspective.

The plot of this book is rather complicated and hard to summarize, but the book still has a fascinating plot nonetheless. It focuses on issues of multiple murders, art forgery, grand theft, and fraud. The book keeps moving quickly, and it is fun to hear the events from different angles. We find ourselves trying to guess which of the passengers on the Zodiac is the Jampot, the murderer.

But it is the characters who make this book really delightful. I loved getting to see so much of Troy, who usually plays only a small part in the books, if at all. She serves as an excellent foil for her husband. In addition, the other passengers on the boat have strong natures that we find either fun or disagreeable, to the extent that we become invested in them.

The one area of concern is the treatment of Dr. Natoush. Though only half- Ethiopian and having visited the home of his father only once, the doctor is seen as Ethiopian and thus black instead of recognizing his mixed heritage. The Americans, Mr. and Miss Hewson and Mr. Pollack, evidence extreme racism, certain that the presence of Dr. Natoush lowers the quality of the group. Miss Rickaby-Carrick makes a point to everyone else that they must do all they can to treat him with extra care to make up for his being black, which is just as racist in its own way. Troy is supposed to be the balanced voice of the author, yet even she refers to Ethiopia as “your own country,” not recognizing England as his country. The book contains a number of racialisms as well, describing Dr. Natoush in stereotypes of blacks. We do need to recognize that the book is a product of its era, written in 1968. I don’t know enough about civil rights in England or New Zealand to be able to tell what the common opinions and treatments of black people were like at the time, but I get the sense that Marsh was trying to show respect to Dr. Natoush.

James Saxon performs the audio edition of this book. He does such an excellent job in everything he narrates. He effectively steps back from his own person in order to let the book and its characters speak for themselves. He uses effective voices and expressions, making the book come across vividly.

Clutch of Constables is a really good Marsh book. I enjoy the way the storyline mixes numerous strands of the several mysteries that tie in together to create an effective plot. The characters are drawn so vividly that they really make the book fun. I give this book five stars.

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

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