Monday, 24 May 1999

Ngaio Marsh: Clutch of Constables (1968)

Edition: Collins, 1968
Review number: 256

Instead of the cruise liner so beloved by crime writers, Clutch of Constables takes place on a small riverboat cruise, on a river described rather vaguely as 'in the north country' and in 'the fens'. Troy Alleyn, exhausted at the end of a successful one man show, takes a cancelled berth on this trip, while her husband is in the States at a criminological conference.

When her letter telling him this reaches him - the post to San Francisco must have been remarkably quick in those days - he is immediately concerned, for the berth was originally taken in the name of a Mr Andropolous, a London art dealer murdered in Soho. The police believe the murderer to be a dealer in drugs and art forgeries known as 'the Jampot', and Alleyn suspects he might also be on the boat trip.

Troy herself gradually becomes uneasy, several small events possibly bearing a sinister interpretation - a jumpy reaction to the mention of the painter Constable as apparently visible in the landscapes the boat passes through. (The similarity of several points on the journey to his paintings is the reason for the title of the book.) Then a painting very much in the manner of a Constable is found by one of her fellow passengers hidden in a drawer in some antique shop furniture, and then another passenger is murdered.

Considered as a crime novel in isolation, Clutch of Constables would be an excellent example of the genre; it is its position in such a lengthy series of novels which rather lets it down. Troy has such an unfortunate tendency to get innocently involved in a murder - she would be rather a suspicious character but for her husband.

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