August 04, 2003

Artists in Crime, by Ngaio Marsh

Over the last few months I've been reading Marsh's books in order of publication. In our last outing, the excellent Vintage Murder, we found Inspector Alleyn on vacation in New Zealand. The current book finds him on shipboard on his way home to England, where he makes the acquaintance of rising artist Agatha Troy, his future wife. There first meeting is somewhat fraught, and though Alleyn agrees to sit for a portrait before the voyage is done, he comes away from it persuaded that Troy dislikes him.

At journey's end, Alleyn toddles off to spend a couple of weeks with his old mother before returning to Scotland Yard, while Troy returns to her home, where a number of artists are paying to study with her. They do not encounter each other again until one of the students is murdered, and Alleyn is called in to investigate.

What follows is both an interesting mystery and a most unconventional romance. Professionalism dictates that Alleyn must treat Troy no differently than any of the other suspects, and this, while clear to both of them, adds a certain regrettable constraint to their interactions. In addition, neither of them really understands each other at first. Alleyn is naturally reserved, both personally and professionally, while Troy, angry with herself for how she behaved at their first meeting, is by turns cold, prickly, and defensive.

Ultimately, of course, Alleyn can no longer deny his feelings, and tells Troy how he feels...but there are no wedding bells at the end of this book, and no mad, passionate embrace. A person has just been murdered; it has been a week of horror and pain; it's no time for falling joyously in love. And yet the passion is there, just below the surface, and at the end Alleyn is given, if not encouragement, then hope for the future.

It's a remarkable accomplishment: although writing genre fiction, Marsh seems determined to avoid all but the most necessary bits of formula. Very, very nice.

Posted by Will Duquette at August 4, 2003 07:58 PM