Tuesday Night Club: Ngaio Marsh’s Early Period

The Tuesday Night Bloggers are moving on: we are a loose grouping of crime fiction fans who are choosing an author each month to write about. We have already covered Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen, and December’s author is Ngaio Marsh. (Look out for what will surely be multiple entries on her v Christmas-y Tied Up in Tinsel – yes I plead guilty, it will turn up later in the month).

My major New Year Resolution will be to decide whether we are Tuesday Night Club or Tuesday Night Bloggers – I alternate the terms, and need to pick one.

This month, I have volunteered to collect links to the posts on my blog each week – so please tell me if you are taking part. I should add that all are welcome – there are no entry criteria and there is no commitment. If you just want to write one post about one book you will be as welcome as someone writing every week for a year – just join in and send us (me) the link.

Here are the other links as they come in:

Kate Jackson  - the  Armchair Reviewer at 

Crossexamining Crime – has a piece called Ngaio 

Marsh on Inspector Alleyn

(and also created, yet again, an excellent logo for

 us… see above)

Noah Stewart and his Archives - he's listing his five

 most/least favourite Ngaio Marsh novels.

Helen Szamuely at Your Freedom and Ours looked at Ngaio Marsh and Watsonism.

... and me, see below.

Ngaio Marsh

is a writer I have mixed feelings about. I read most of her books when I was a teenager, though I never warmed to her the way I did to Agatha Christie. But I started re-reading her in the past year, and surprised myself by how much I enjoyed them – though more for the interest of the settings and the sociological detail than for the murder plots. I also find her terribly funny – though not in every book, which is strange.

She seems to have written 32 books from 1934 to 1982. I decided for the Tuesday Night club this time that I would divide those neatly into four groups of 8, and pick one from each era. So I’m starting off with this early entry, her 6th book.

Artists in Crime by Ngaio Marsh
Published 1938

Artists in Crime

[Agatha Troy, a successful artist, runs residential art courses in her large house. She is arriving for the first day of the latest course.]

She knew so exactly how each of them would look, how their work would take shape, how the studio would smell of oil colour, turpentine, and fixative, how Sonia, the model, would complain of the heat, the draught, the pose, the cold, and the heat again. Katti would stump backwards and forwards before her easel, probably with one shoe squeaking. Ormerin would sigh, Valmai Seacliff would attitudinize, and Garcia, wrestling with clay by the south window, would whistle between his teeth.

‘Oh, well,’ said Troy, and marched round the screen.

Yes, there it all was, just as she expected, the throne shoved against the left-hand wall, the easels with fresh white canvases, the roaring gas heater, and the class. They had all come down to the studio after breakfast and, with the exception of Garcia and Malmsley, waited for her to pose the model. Malmsley was already at work: the drawings were spread out on a table. He wore, she noticed with displeasure, a sea-green overall. ‘To go with the beard, I suppose,’ thought Troy. Garcia was in the south window, glooming at the clay sketch of Comedy and Tragedy. Sonia, the model wrapped in a white kimono, stood beside him. Katti Bostock, planted squarely in the centre of the room before a large black canvas, set her enormous palette. The rest of the class, Ormerin, Phillida Lee, Watt Hatchett, and Basil Pilgrim, were grouped round Valmai Seacliff.

commentary: This is the book where Roderick Alleyn meets Agatha Troy – an artist, and the great love of his life. It is a most peculiar book, though highly enjoyable. There is a lot of soulful gazing and agonizing by the two would-be lovers – unable to do anything because of the shadow of the crime lies between them – it is all very much like Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. And the setup is excruciating: Alleyn is visiting his mother near where the murder has taken place in Troy’s house, so he stays at home and chats to Lady Alleyn when he gets back from the investigation each evening. But there is a robust splendidness about the art classes in Troy’s house. The disparate group above have gathered there for a house party of art and – of course – gossip, trouble and doomed affairs. The beautiful naked model is particularly troublesome. There’s a surprisingly modern feel (sketching summer schools in Tuscany come to mind), and of course it’s a great setting for a crime. I would say there are too many characters – convincing for Troy’s money-making scheme, but hard for the reader to distinguish among the suspects. The murder method is particularly unpleasant - the haplessness and helplessness of the victim (which don’t seem to bother any of the suspects or investigators) reminded me of my all-time least favourite method: in PD James’s Shroud for a Nightingale.

The Bohemian ways have Alleyn’s sidekick, Fox, making this remark:
Not much difference between their ways and the sort of folk we used to deal with…if you’re to believe what you hear. Only the criminal classes are just promiscuous, without being able to make it sound intellectual, if you know what I mean.
There is a brief appearance by a rather splendid chorus girl – she writes to one of her friends
I’ve asked Dolores Duval for the address she went to when she had a spot of trouble but she says the police found out about that lady so it’s no go.
The clothes are excellent, with all the arty women wearing trousers, and one of the artists ‘in a black beret… [looking] as rough as bags’ – great phrase, apparently Australian (and perhaps NZ?) slang.

Sadly, my recent claim that Marsh puts good girls in caps (rather than hats) is rather challenged in this book, but I will continue to keep tabs.

The murder isn’t hard to solve – there is one incident quite early on that raises the suspicions of the experienced reader – but the artistic milieu is great fun.

The rather risque picture shows an Otis College art class from the 1920's – although it is more sculpture than painting, the terrifically grumpy group is Troy’s class to the life (and there is some sculping, as it is rather oddly described, in the book).

Very much a book of its time, and a good thing to get Alleyn sorted out and in love so he stops lusting after suspects, as he did in earlier books.

Also from this era: I have covered on the blog
A Man Lay Dead
Enter a Murderer
The Nursing Home Murder
Death in Ecstasy
& Death in a White Tie (twice)


  1. Funnily enough, the rather risqué image you used was pretty much replicated in the TV adaptation starring Simon Williams (who didn't do the series, which is a bit of a shame I thought), which was certainly a bit of an eye-opener for a BBC cozy (but then there is even a flash of nudity in an early episode of the Suchet Point series, not that I'm saying which one - we must have some decorum here).

    1. I'm glad you are holding the line Sergio. I was so pleased with this picture - because of the artists' faces - that I had to lower my usual very high standards for once! And it is a fair representation of the book....

  2. Marsh was, I think, very good at depicting her society, Moira. And, perhaps because of her theatre background, she did dialogue quite effectively, I think. I'm glad you mentioned her wit, too, because I really think she did that particularly well. I have to say I've always really liked the character of Agatha Troy, so very glad you chose this one for special attention.

    1. That's a good point about her theatrical background, Margot, and one that hadn't occurred to me. You are right, on a good day her dialogue is excellent. And yes, Troy is a nice character.

  3. Love the picture, Moira, and the review, especially your reminder that Marsh's humor was inconsistent. I picked Overture to Murder to read, and thank God it's one of the genuinely funny ones so far!

    1. Oh good - I shall be reading that one soon, after a recommendation, so am glad to hear it is one of the better ones.

  4. i have attempted to read Marsh so far but failed at the same time I refused to read Christie but now find I enjoy them. Obviously our tastes change

    1. I think you are right - I went through a phase of not enjoying Marsh particularly, but now I get a lot out of them. Try again later!

  5. I must admit I was reminded of John Cooper Clarke's poem You Never See a Nipple in the Daily Express after a quick double-take at the photo!
    I can't say you have me rushing out on a Marsh book buying spree

    1. Raising the tone with a poem and then lowering it in the same sentence - quite an achievement Col! I thought there was an artistic imperative for the picture. And no, I wouldn't say this was your kind of book.

  6. Still got to read a Ngaio Marsh, Moira. Thanks for these excellent reviews of her books.

    1. Well there's plenty to choose from Prashant - and you can get plenty of recommendations from the Tuesday Night Bloggers.

  7. I have read about half of her books... the first half... and haven't been motivated lately to move on to later ones .... even with suggestions from various blogs. Recently I thought I might just try a goal to read one a year and hope I last that long.

    1. Goals that we can achieve - that's what we need! I'll probably read a couple more while I'm doing the Tuesday Night Blogs.

  8. I think Marsh's own artistic background is important for how non-sensationalized she depicts nude modelling. She would frown on pornography, but sees absolutely nothing pornographic or even erotic about nude painting.

    1. Excellent point, thanks. She put her artistic sensibilities and her theatrical experience to good use in the books...


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