Monday 3 July 2017

Was Ngaio Marsh a Snob? Part 4

Ngaio Marsh
Artists in Crime

This novel was written in the 30s, and comes early in Marsh’s mystery sequence. The action takes place at a country house that has been turned into an art school by a well-known painter, Agatha Troy. The story has many good points, but it is unnecessarily gruesome. The enjoyable satire (is nobody likeable?) is spoiled by Marsh's bizarre obsession with vomiting. OK, people may throw up when someone they know is murdered, but must we all go on and ON about it?

Before term starts, tutor Bostock writes to Troy about the set-up. She has booked Sonia Gluck as a model: “The little swine’s beautiful [but] It’s impossible to keep her in her place... Wat Hatchett’s voice is like the crashing together of old tin cans.” (He's Australian.)

Calling your fellow students by their surnames only was a Slade habit from before World War One. There are some rather posh students (Pilgrim, Seacliff and Malmsey), a couple of rough diamonds (Hatchett and Garcia), a rather ineffectual Frenchman (Ormerin) and a lower middle-class girl, Phyllida Lee.

Phyllida has a squeaky voice with a slight Midlands accent, and her original girlish personality keeps breaking through. She appears for her police interview wearing a deliberately unfashionable dress hand-printed with a pattern in red, and has long hair scraped back into a bun. But she's nice to Wat Hatchett, and despite her affectations and habit of listening at doors she is the most sympathetic of the lot. Tutor Katti Bostock reports that Phyllida “was made to feel entirely superfluous” at the Slade. She tries to be detached and modern, but (Bostock again) she “sweats suburbia from every pore”.

The students never even seemed to see one, and if they did they looked as if one smelt. And at first this place was just as bad…

Wat Hatchett is more thick-skinned: “His Sydney accent was so broad as to be almost comic. One wondered if he could be doing it on purpose. It was not the custom at Troy’s for new people to speak until they were spoken to… He was so innocently impossible.

It’s poor Sonia who gets murdered. Roderick Alleyn, Marsh’s series detective, is staying with his mother nearby, so he’s sent to investigate. Lady Alleyn “pressed a bell-push, and when Clibborn came, said: ‘Mr Roderick’s overcoat at once, Clibborn, and tell French to bring the car round quickly.’” (Lady Alleyn also has a butler who seems wheeled on just so that Marsh can point out his flat feet and adenoids.)

To the police, Katti complains that Troy overpaid Sonia because she handed out some “sob story”. Sonia pulls faces while Katti is trying to paint her, and eventually Katti “lets her have it”. Why did Sonia behave so badly, asks Alleyn. “Because I treated her like a model!” says Katti.

Troy is always too easy with the models. She spoils them. I gave the little brute hell because she needed it… I said everything I’d been trying not to say for the past fortnight. I let go.

Katti also sneers at Sonia for living with Garcia, and letting him live off her. Fox and Alleyn disapprove of the students’ attitude to free love. Phyllida talks naively about “body urges”. Basil Pilgrim loves Valmai Seacliff for her “purity”. Troy and Katti decide Valmai is a “nymphomaniac” – but they mean something like “vamp” or “flirt”. Nobody justifies their attitudes: it’s not about sin, or damaging society. Was it all about keeping up appearances?

Troy is rude to her students and moans about them, apparently forgetting that they're paying her. Alleyn is abusive to his friend, the journalist Nigel Bathgate, and the students are vile to each other. Nigel is very rude about Hatchett (“He ought to be told how revolting he is whenever he opens his mouth. Antipodean monster.”), but that’s to give Alleyn an excuse to defend the Australian language.

And some people say civility has declined… I usually defend Golden Age mystery writers against blanket charges of snobbery from people who have read none of their books, but the prosecution rests.

More here, and links to the rest.

1 comment:

  1. An artists' retreat sounds so cozy: I enjoyed that this was so resolutely non-cozy, everyone so grumpy and bleak. I thought Alleyn's mother was fairly excruciating, and that it was the most horrible murder method imaginable. I liked the chorusgirl friend and the hint at backstreet abortion ('when you had your trouble last year'). Troy did not sparkle for me, but it was a good sour read.