Clutch of Constables (Ngaio Marsh)

By Ngaio Marsh

First published: UK, Collins, 1968; US, Little Brown, 1969

Blurb (UK)

He looks upon the murders that he did in fact perform as tiresome and regrettable necessities.

Thus Chief Superintendent Roderick Alleyn, in a lecture some time after the event, described the international crook known as ‘the Jampot’.  But it was Alleyn’s wife Troy who knew ‘the Jampot’ best: she had shared close quarters with him in the cruise of the pleasure steamer Zodiac, winding its peaceful course along the river and canals in the arcadian setting of Tollardwark, Crossdyke, Longminster and Ramsdyke in the ‘Constable’ country.

Alleyn speaks with hindsight, but Troy was there in person, one of the odd group of passengers in the tiny ship.  Troy knew that something was badly wrong with the company she kept.  She ‘…was visited once again by the notion that she was involved in some kind of masquerade, that the play, if there was a play, moved towards its climax, that the tension, if indeed there was any tension, among her fellow-passengers, had been exacerbated by the twist of some carefully concealed screw’.

There are two murders aboard the Zodiac and it is Roderick Alleyn himself who forces the final showdown and revelations.

Ngaio Marsh and Roderick Alleyn form one of the most famous fiction combinations of our time.  All her stories are exotic, witty and characterised in depth, with settings sharply observed.  So it is with Troy’s fated cruise in the Zodiac and the discovery of the master criminal, ‘the Jampot’.

My review

An original and attractive plot combines a cruise of Constable country with Mrs. Alleyn trapped amongst the picturesque grotesques aboard the MV Zodiac, the disposal of a Soho art-dealer, a stupid, exasperating and pitiful spinster, and an American criminal, and the hunt for the master-criminal Foljambe, masterminding an ingeniously detailed plot for drug-smuggling and art forgery. Tension grows with a masterly management of small incidents, and is sustained until the final extraordinary discovery in the fog. Equally commendable are Superintendent Alleyn’s workmanlike detection, embracing footprints and post-mortem marks, and the attack on racialism.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (12th December 1968):

Miss Marsh has taken a lot of trouble over her latest book.  As Troy, Superintendent Alleyn’s artist wife, takes the little river cruise in surprising Constable country and worries and writes letters to her husband, he is retrospectively lecturing on the case that eventuates to a class of would-be detectives who are expected, as we are, to pick up the clues and come to the right answers.  But in the event we need not work too hard because the puzzle is not very difficult.  It would need social subtlety deeper than Miss Marsh’s good heart to make us doubtful who was innocent.  Notwithstanding, as a light novel this is thoroughly enjoyable in the good old manner.