Sunday, December 23, 2012

Ngaio Marsh : Artists in Crime, 1938

Ngaio Marsh, cultivated the hobby of painting. This artistic inclination is expressed several times during its production. An example in which the hobby of painting finds expression, is Artists in Crime, 1938.
Agatha Troy has initiated a study of painting in Tatler's End House. Lady Alleyn Dane's Lodge, mother of Roderick, visited in the past, along with his offspring, a "personal" by Agatha Troy, and both were impressed by the touch of the painter. After meeting on the ship "Suva", Roderick is also affected by the personality of the artist, but doesn’t plan to be pregnant to her eyes: he doesn’t know that she, in turn is regretted to have made a poor figure, with a person she thought trivial, and instead had proved sensitive. So the conditions are there. And Roderick in a letter pleases his mother to go and pay a visit to Agatha.
The fact is that one day, the two meet again: why? The fact is Agatha organized at her home an internship painting, centered on the "naked", with promising students: Cedric Malmsey, Wolf Garcia, Francis Ormerin, Phillida Lee, Watt Hatchett, Basil Pilgrim, Valmai Seacliff. Who would ever think that even during a stage of painting, could germinate the seed of crime? Yet among the students, there is the model Sonia Gluck, that far from making only his work, that to pose nude, she is also quite uninhibited in her dealings with the opposite sex, so as to generate a lot of guys, relationships conflict: there are people who want have sex with Sonia, there are people who had already sex, someone is being blackmailed by her, in short .. a fine assortment of potential murderers. Because the blackmailed people , someone who had had sex or who want have sex, it turns out that does not cultivate friendly relations towards her.

So one day, Sonia is invited to try a scene, taken from a fairy tale Malmsley has been commissioned to illustrate: a woman murdered by the wife of her lover, pierced by a dagger through the slats of the bench on which she is lying.
Sonia was invited several times to assume the pose requested by Agatha, but the drapery and the axis of the platform, her beautiful naked body does not fit, so soon, in the intolerance of the students asked to portray, which must clear all the time what they draw, at the constant changes of posture of the model, Agatha with a piece of chalk draws the shape of his body on the bench, so that she can no longer take another posture that one drawn. The boys are left, after placing a knife between the boards in the portrait position as if it had sunk into the body of the lover murdered. And then they left for the weekend: most of the guys go away, while Garcia remains for a bit of time.
When they resume painting, Agatha is not at home: however, the boys, under the guidance of Katty Bostock, a famous painter which Troy has leased his house during his absence for a year, laying and resume the session, taking advantage contour designed by Agatha, although much of it is hidden by the drapery, the boys ask Sonia recline herself on the bench, as well as Agatha in the first session had requested.
The pose is awkward, Sonia does not want to get well, and then Valmai who announced her engagement to Basil before she went, and leaving her empty apartment (or almost: there was still Garcia), annoyed by the attitude of Sonia , forces her to lie down on the bench. The fact is that Sonia, emits a gasp and she surrenders. When Katty rushes, noticing the expression of the girl, and directs her , while making an effort because it seems that she does not want to come off the bench, the body of Sonia has a long dagger in the back: died instantly.
Accident or murder ..? The knife used in the first session had been removed with difficulty by the axes, at presence of Agatha, so its presence testifies that someone has taken over and has voluntarily stuck it in the platform, making it the strength to penetrate between wooden boards, and has inserted it in the position that it had the first time, that is, so that through the ribs it penetrated the heart. Then was placed by those who knew what was his original position: ergo, there must be someone present at the first session.
Roderick is sent to the scene of the crime. Agatha is back and has learned that the "bitch Sonia," as she had previously appealed, was killed. The new meeting between Roderick and Agatha, is dedicated to officialdom, despite he wants to make the meeting less formal. But the answer to Agatha, the beginning is not that Roderick would have. Moreover, from the evidence obtained, it soon emerges that several have been reticent in something.
Is Valmai Seacliff who "murdered before their eyes," the girl, which led her to take the position that the victim refused. Between the two women has never gone good blood: two women is rare that they can live well in tight elbow, especially if they are going to use both of their charm as a weapon of power: Sonia is a whore, Valmai a nymphomaniac. However, Valmai has an alibi as safe as a rock: she was at a friends house with Pilgrim, located several miles from the site of the crime and her alibi was confirmed by Pilgrim and by the couple of friends. However paradoxical it may be, the murderer who should be her, seems she is not, because the real murderess put the knife between the boards and waited for Sonia die on her own, or someone forced her to be pierced. Main suspect is Garcia, who has disappeared: no one knows where he ended up. He is thought to be the murderer, because it is learned that he had an affair with Sonia.
The investigation continues and as it turns out, the group of young promises of painting is nothing more than a den of snakes, a crowd of would-be assassins, each having a more or less valid reason for wanting to get their hands on the model: Agatha Troy had hated when in a fit of jealousy, or envy, Sonia had disfigured his portrayal of Valmai Seacliff; Garcia, had threatened to kill her if she still annoyed with the promise of marriage (after he had made her pregnant ) Basil Pilgrim also had a motive, because they had had sex together and he did not want to, as she threatened to do, this thing might be found by Valmai; it turns out Malmsey had one more valuable motive: he was blackmailed from her, for one thing concerning his reputation as a promising young painting.
So few could bear her, indeed only one: Phillida Lee, a pupil of Agatha.
But everything revolves around Garcia, who many think is the culprit, until the keenness of Alleyn, is found the London studio
of Garcia and here, is recovered his body, died a few days. Garcia was murdered with nitric acid: a bottle of acid, used to bite engravings, half is found nearby. The acid has savagely killed, torturing him in the last moments of life.
Who will ever killed him ? The murderer of the same model? Or he killed the model and someone killed him? Questions that will be answered in the frantic and extraordinary final.
Sixth novel Roderick Alleyn, it's like all those of the Marsh which I am honored to have read, once again, masterfully conceived. Perhaps never before in this novel, the author plays with the reader and tries to take him by the nose, providing already some distance the most logical signs of who could be the murderer. Moreover, I say, for those who have read other novels by Marsh with Roderick Alleyn, in this novel, for the first time Roderick and Agatha meet each other, and for the first time the two fall in love. The novel thus has a special place in the marshian production. Especially since the first meeting of Roderick and Agatha, after their disastrous encounter on the ship’s deck
, on which they are embarked, they would never think that one day ... will meet during a police investigation because of a murder.
The ability to provide all the clues to the reader and at the same time teasing him, is clearly established. In the very first scene we find manifested the dialogue from which you could then look for things that happen and are explained later in the novel. Furthermore, the same murder finds its expression in something that happens at the beginning of the novel, and you do not understand the importance, until to the final. What I do not understand, and which has a fundamental importance, is as did the murderer, if he had stuck a knife between the planks of the platform during the weekend, to be sure Sonia would surely be dead the following Monday: Sonia could refuse to install, and someone could not force her to take that position. In other words, the voluntary murder was not premeditated and it happened by chance? Or were valid premises that happen it? And why ? Clarified these questions, you will nail the murderer to his responsibilities. A murderer as bad as ever, an unparalleled perfidy.
The murder is discovered at the end for a hole in a glove, for a car too bright in fuel consumption, and some photographs.
Brilliant style and fluid, never banal dialogue, the plot is remarkable in contortions, in the figures of real or alleged suspects, true or false murderers, breathtaking descriptions, in the love story who is born.
How to write and describe is a trademark: clever writer, very refined, often Ngaio Marsh invented situations in which artists were involved. Moreover in many statements, she was very frank, very little reluctant to take refuge behind convenient phrases.
The same plot unfolds smoothly, without ever betraying the expectations, without bother or annoy, because when she drops a track, is quick to find another one, maybe that it crosses one before giving a new destination.
And like the snake eating its own tail, the novel ends where it begins and where it ends, it begins.
With a sleight of hand. In which Agatha Christie was good, but in which Ngaio Marsh was not from less.
In short, an excellent novel.

Pietro De Palma


  1. This is one of my favorites by her. The Alleyn-Troy love story seems obviously derivative of Sayers, but it's one of her best plots and the art stuff is done very well.

    1. Likely, John. But Marsh as a writer while being very refined, is less redundant and more incisive than Sayers, which is sometimes very verbose in his works. The Marsh is more concise but also more stringent, and more bad. Sometimes it seems more bad than Christie, of which there is too much talking, forgetting two writers very valid and refined: Ngaio Marsh first, and then Christianna Brand, which would now finally were revalued as they deserve.
      The plot of this novel, is marvelous, with its Machiavellian construction, with its red herrings, and with the real ones revealed by details that seem insignificant at first glance and then instead weigh like stones.