There’s something grim and grimy about The Art School Murders; published in the middle of World War II, it’s not a book to boost morale during the Blitz. It’s as sombre as P.D. James.
It opens on “a cold, sunless, November morning, with a ground mist lying like a grey blanket over the rain-sodden fields”; on the next page, a corpse is discovered, lying behind the screen in the life room of a provincial, down-at-heel art school run by a Neapolitan mountebank.
The victim was an ageing, alcoholic model, who would have probably ended up a streetwalker, had someone not stabbed her. She lies on a slab in the mortuary, with “the inevitable dripping tap, the smell of carbolic and damp cement, and the usual deathly chill”.
The school is likely to close; the cloak-rooms are “dank and dingy”; the secretary resigns, the senior master has been hit by a car, and the junior master is miserable. “A darned failure”, who compares himself to Thersites, he shares a “comfortless home with greedy relations who took all he had to give and made no return”, with a “dank and neglected” garden in “a miry lane between high, unkempt hedges of hazel”.
The only students we get to know well are unpopular and lonely, one a born old maid with a crush on Fred Astaire; the local policemen are bilious, unshaven, and have “unhappy, dark eyes”; and the caretaker is a mentally afflicted war veteran. The village (picturesque, but spoilt by building developments, with an unpopular golf course and eligible fields lying fallow) is populated by religious spinsters (“little niggling faults offset by little niggling virtues”), selfish widows, and their spoilt sons.
Much of the book takes place at night, in blackout conditions; more women are killed in darkened cinemas and cellars – one, like a 1950s Agatha Christie victim, the girl who saw too much.
A detective story can be gloomy and shabby, and still entertain, if the premise and plot are strong enough. Dalton writes smoothly, she draws people and places well, but her book lacks cleverness or ingenuity.
The murderer barely appears in the book. I suspected X near the end, because this very minor character suddenly became more prominent (and even appears on the page). The clueing is feeble; the clue of the footprints (which give Chapter XIX its title) – the damning evidence against the murderer – is unfair, because not shared with the reader. There are two extremely slender indications: ROT13: First, that X could have learnt the third victim was a danger: “Ur tbrf ebhaq fryyvat irtrgnoyrf sebz uvf nyybgzrag” (Puncgre K) / “zl zbgure’f oebgure pnzr nybat whfg abj jvgu fbzr terraf sebz uvf nyybgzrag, fb ur’f fgbccvat, gbb” (Puncgre KV). Second, a glimpse of a motive: “Gur byq zna unf orra irel vapyvarq gb zbcr fvapr uvf fba qvrq.” (Puncgre IV).
No substitute for Ngaio Marsh’s Artists in Crime!