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Ngaio Marsh

Artists in Crime

For Phyllis and John

The Characters in the Tale

Chief Detective-Inspector Roderick Alleyn, C.I.D.

Miss Van Maes, the success of the ship.

Agatha Troy, R.A., of Tatler’s End House, Bossicote, Bucks. Painter.

Katti Bostock, well-known painter of plumbers and Negro musicians.

Nigel Bathgate, journalist.

Lady Alleyn, of Danes Lodge, Bossicote, Bucks; mother of Chief Detective-Inspector Alleyn.

Cedric Malmsley, a student with a beard.

Garcia, a sculptor.

Sonia Gluck, a model.

Francis Ormerin, a student from Paris.

Phillida Lee, a student from the Slade.

Watt Hatchett, a student from Australia.

The Hon. Basil Pilgrim, a student from the nobility.

Valmai Seacliff, a student with sex-appeal.

Superintendent Blackman, of the Buckingham Constabulary Force.

Detective-Inspector Fox, C.I.D.

Detective-Sergeant Bailey, C.I.D., a fingerprint expert.

Detective-Sergeant Thompson, C.I.D., a photographic expert.

Dr. Ampthill, police surgeon at Bossicote, Bucks.

P.C. Sligo, of Bossicote Police Force.

A charlady.

Bobbie O’Dawne, a lady of the ensemble.

An estate agent.

Ted McCully, foreman at a car depot.

Dr. Curtis, police surgeon, C.I.D.

Captain Pascoe, of Boxover.

His servant.


Prologue at Sea

Alleyn leant over the deck-rail, looking at the wet brown wharf and the upturned faces of the people. In a minute or two now they would slide away, lose significance, and become a vague memory. “We called at Suva.” He had a sudden desire to run a mental ring round the scene beneath him, to isolate it, and make it clear for ever in his mind. Idly at first, and then with absurd concentration, he began to memorise, starting with a detail. The tall Fijian with dyed hair. The hair was vivid magenta against the arsenic green of a pile of fresh bananas. He trapped and held the pattern of it. Then the brown face beneath, with liquid blue half-tones reflected from the water, then the oily dark torso, foreshortened, the white loincloth, and the sharp legs. The design made by the feet on wet planks. It became a race. How much of the scene could he fix in his memory before the ship sailed? The sound, too — he must get that — the firm slap of bare feet on wet boards, the languid murmur of voices and the snatches of song drifting from a group of native girls near those clumps of fierce magenta coral. The smell must not be forgotten — frangipanni, coco-nut oil, and sodden wood. He widened his circle, taking in more figures — the Indian woman in the shrill pink sari, sitting by the green bananas; wet roofs on the wharf and damp roads, wandering aimlessly towards mangrove swamps and darkened hills. Those hills, sharply purple at their base, lost outline behind a sulky company of clouds, to jag out, fantastically peaked, against a motionless and sombre sky. The clouds themselves were indigo at the edges, heavy with the ominous depression of unshed rain. The darkness of everything and the violence of colour — it was a pattern of wet brown, acid green, magenta and indigo. The round voices of the Fijians, loud and deep, as though they spoke through resounding tubes, pierced the moist air and made it vibrant.

Everything shifted a little, stepped back a pace. The ship had parted from the wharf. Already the picture was remote, the sounds would soon fade out. Alleyn shut his eyes and found the whole impression vivid under the closed lids. When he opened them the space between vessel and land had widened. He no longer wanted to look at the wharf, and turned away.

“And am I hart?” the success of the ship was saying to a group of young men. “Oh baby! I’ll say I’ve left hoff a stone back there in that one-eyed lil’ burg. Hart! Phoo!”

The young men laughed adoringly.

“It’s hotter than this in Honolulu!” teased one of the young men.

“Maybe. But it’s not so enervating.”

“Very hot spot, Honolulu!”

“Oh boy!” chanted the success, rolling her eyes and sketching a Hawaiian movement with her hips. “You wait a while till I show you round the lil’ old home town. Gee, that label on my grips certainly looks good to me.” She saw Alleyn. “Hello, hello, look who’s here! Come right over and join the party.”

Alleyn strolled over. Ever since they sailed from Auckland he had been uneasily aware of a certain warmth in the technique of the success where he was concerned. He supposed it was rather one up to him with all these youngsters in hot pursuit. At this stage of speculation he invariably pulled a fastidious face and thought ruefully: “Lord, lord, the vanity of the male forties.” But she was very lovely, and the thought of her almost lent a little glamour to the possible expectation of the weary routine of a shipboard flirtation.

“Look at him!” cried the success. “Isn’t he the cutest thing! That quiet English stuff certainly makes one great big appeal with this baby. And does he flash the keep-clear signal! Boys, I’ll take you right into my confidence. Listen! This Mr. Alleyn is my big flop. I don’t mean a thing to him.”

“She really is rather awful,” thought Alleyn, and he said: “Ah, Miss Van Maes, you don’t know a coward when you see one.”


“I–I really don’t know,” mumbled Alleyn hurriedly.

“Hullo, we’re going through the barrier,” said one of the youths.

They all turned to the deck-rail. The sea wrapped itself sluggishly about the thin rib of the reef and fell away on either side in an enervated pother of small breakers. Over Fiji the rain still hung in ponderable clouds. The deep purple of the islands was lit by desultory patches of livid sunshine, banana-green, sultry, but without iridescence. The ship passed through the fangs of the reef.

Alleyn slipped away, walked aft, and climbed the companion-way to the boat deck. Nobody about up there, the passengers in their shoregoing clothes were still collected on the main deck. He filled his pipe meditatively, staring back towards Fiji. It was pleasant up there. Peaceful.

“Damn!” said a female voice. “Damn, damn, damn! Oh blast!”

Startled, Alleyn looked up. Sitting on the canvas cover of one of the boats was a woman. She seemed to be dabbing at something. She stood up and he saw that she wore a pair of exceedingly grubby flannel trousers, and a short grey overall. In her hand was a long brush. Her face was disfigured by a smudge of green paint, and her short hair stood up in a worried shock, as though she had run her hands through it. She was very thin and dark. She scrambled to the bows of the boat and Alleyn was able to see what she had been at. A small canvas was propped up in the lid of an open paint-box. Alleyn drew in his breath sharply. It was as if his deliberately cultivated memory of the wharf at Suva had been simplified and made articulate. The sketch was an almost painfully explicit statement of the feeling of that scene. It was painted very directly with crisp, nervous touches. The pattern of blue-pinks and sharp greens fell across it like the linked syllables of a perfect phrase. It was very simply done, but to Alleyn it was profoundly satisfying — an expression of an emotion, rather than a record of a visual impression.

The painter, an unlit cigarette between her lips, stared dispassionately at her work. She rummaged in her trouser pockets, found nothing but a handkerchief that had been used as a paint-rag, and ran her fingers through her hair.

“Blast!” she repeated, and took the unlit cigarette from her lips.

“Match?” said Alleyn.

She started, lost her balance, and sat down abruptly. “How long have you been there?” she demanded ungraciously.



2011 - 2018