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Artists in crime, p.1
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       Artists in Crime, p.1

           Ngaio Marsh
Artists in Crime

  Ngaio Marsh

  Artists in Crime

  For Phyllis and John

  The Characters in the Tale

  Chief Detective-Inspector Roderick Alleyn, CID

  Miss Van Maes The success of the ship

  Agatha Troy, RA 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

  Detective-Inspector Fox, CID

  Detective-Sergeant Bailey, CID A fingerprint expert

  Detective-Sergeant Thompson, CID A photographic expert

  Dr Ampthill Police surgeon at Bossicote, Bucks.

  PC 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, CID

  Captain Pascoe Of Boxover

  His servant

  Table of Contents

  Cover Page

  Title Page


  The Characters in the Tale

  CHAPTER 1 Prologue at Sea

  CHAPTER 2 Five Letters

  CHAPTER 3 Class Assembles

  CHAPTER 4 Case for Mr Alleyn

  CHAPTER 5 Routine

  CHAPTER 6 Sidelight on Sonia

  CHAPTER 7 Alibi for Troy

  CHAPTER 8 Sidelights on Garcia

  CHAPTER 9 Phillida Lee and Watt Hatchett

  CHAPTER 10 Weekend of an Engaged Couple

  CHAPTER 11 Ormerin’s Nerves and Sonia’s Correspondence

  CHAPTER 12 Malmsley on Pleasure

  CHAPTER 13 Upstairs

  CHAPTER 14 Evidence from a Twig

  CHAPTER 15 Lady of the Ensemble

  CHAPTER 16 Back to the Yard

  CHAPTER 17 The Man at the Table

  CHAPTER 18 One of Five

  CHAPTER 19 Alleyn Makes a Pilgrimage

  CHAPTER 20 Arrest

  CHAPTER 21 Epilogue in a Garden


  About the Publisher


  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 memorize, 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, fore-shortened, 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. Hie smell must not be forgotten—frangipanni, coconut 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 haff 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 he was very lonely, 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 be
en at. A small canvas was propped up in the lid of an open paintbox. 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.

  ‘Only just come. I—I haven’t been spying. May I give you a match?’

  ‘Oh—thanks. Chuck up the box, would you?’ She lit her cigarette, eyeing him over the top of her long thin hands, and then turned to look again at her work.

  ‘It is exceedingly good, isn’t it?’ said Alleyn.

  She hunched up one shoulder as if his voice was a piercing draught in her ear, muttered something, and crawled back to her work. She picked up her palette and began mixing a streak of colour with her knife.

  ‘You’re not going to do anything more to it?’ said Alleyn involuntarily.

  She turned her head and stared at him.

  ‘Why not?’

  ‘Because it’s perfect—you’ll hurt it. I say, please forgive me. Frightful impertinence. I do apologize.’

  ‘Oh, don’t be ridiculous,’ she said impatiently, and screwed up her eyes to peer at the canvas.

  ‘I merely thought—’ began Alleyn.

  ‘I had an idea,’ said the painter, ‘that if I worked up here on this hideously uncomfortable perch, I might possibly have the place to myself for a bit.’

  ‘You shall,’ said Alleyn, and bowed to her profile. He tried to remember if he had ever before been quite so pointedly snubbed by a total stranger. Only, he reflected, by persons he was obliged to interview in the execution of his duties as an officer of Scotland Yard. On those occasions he persisted. On this an apologetic exit seemed to be clearly indicated. He walked to the top of the companion-way, and then paused.

  ‘But if you do anything more, you’ll be a criminal. The thing’s perfect. Even I can see that, and I—’

  ‘“Don’t know anything about it, but I do know what I like,”’ quoted the lady savagely.

  ‘I was not about to produce that particular bromide,’ said Alleyn mildly.

  For the first time since he had spoken to her, she gave him her full attention. A rather charming grin lifted the corners of her mouth.

  ‘All right,’ she said, I’m being objectionable. My turn to apologize. I thought at first you were one of the “don’t put me in it” sort of onlookers.’

  ‘Heaven forbid!’

  ‘I wasn’t going to do too much,’ she went on, actually as if she had turned suddenly shy. It’s just that figure in the foreground—I left it too late. Worked for an hour before we sailed. There should be a repetition of the bluish grey there, but I can’t remember—’ She paused, worried.

  ‘But there was!’ exclaimed Alleyn. ‘The reflection off the water up the inside of the thighs. Don’t you remember?’

  ‘Golly—you’re right,’ she said. ‘Here—wait a bit.’

  She picked up a thin brush, broke it through the colour, held it poised for a second, and then laid a delicate touch on the canvas. ‘That?’

  ‘Yes,’ cried Alleyn excitedly. ‘That’s done it. Now you can stop.’

  ‘All right, all right. I didn’t realize you were a painting bloke.’

  ‘I’m not. It’s simply insufferable cheek.’

  She began to pack up her box.

  ‘Well, I must say you’re very observant for a layman. Good memory.’

  ‘Not really,’ said Alleyn. ‘It’s synthetic’

  ‘You mean you’ve trained your eye?’

  ‘I’ve had to try to do so, certainly.’


  ‘Part of my job. Let me take your box for you.’

  ‘Oh—thank you. Mind the lid—it’s a bit painty. Pity to spoil those lovely trousers. Will you take the sketch?’

  ‘Do you want a hand down?’ offered Alleyn.

  ‘I can manage, thank you,’ she said gruffly, and clambered down to the deck.

  Alleyn had propped the canvas against the rail and now stood looking at it. She joined him, eyeing it with the disinterested stare of the painter.

  ‘Why!’ murmured Alleyn suddenly. ‘Why, you must be Agatha Troy.’

  ‘That’s me.’

  ‘Good Lord, what a self-sufficient fathead I’ve been.’

  ‘Why?’ said Agatha Troy. ‘You were all right. Very useful.’

  ‘Thank you,’ said Alleyn humbly. ‘I saw your one-man show a year ago in London.’

  ‘Did you?’ she said without interest.

  ‘I should have guessed at once. Isn’t there a sort of relationship between this painting and the “In the Stadium”?’

  ‘Yes.’ She moved her eyebrows quickly. ‘That’s quite true. The arrangement’s much the same—radiating lines and a spotted pattern. Same feeling. Well, I’d better go down to my cabin and unpack.’

  ‘You joined the ship at Suva?’

  ‘Yes. I noticed this subject from the main deck. Things shove themselves at you like that sometimes. I dumped my luggage, changed, and came up.’

  She slung her box over her shoulder and picked up the sketch.

  ‘Can I—?’ said Alleyn diffidently.

  ‘No, thanks.’

  She stood for a moment staring back towards Fiji. Her hands gripped the shoulder-straps of her paintbox. The light breeze whipped back her short dark hair, revealing the contour of the skull and the delicate bones of the face. The temples were slightly hollow, the cheek-bones showed, the dark-blue eyes were deep-set under the thin ridge of the brows. The sun caught the olive skin with its smudge of green paint, and gave it warmth. There was a kind of spare gallantry about her. She turned quickly before he had time to look away and their gaze met.

  Alleyn was immediately conscious of a clarification of his emotions. As she stood before him, her face slowly reddening under his gaze, she seemed oddly familiar. He felt that he already knew her next movement, and the next inflexion of her clear, rather cold voice. It was a little as though he had thought of her a great deal, but never met her before. These impressions held him transfixed, for how long he never knew, while he still kept his eyes on hers. Then something clicked in his mind, and he realized that he had stared her out of countenance. The blush had mounted painfully to the roots of her hair and she had turned away.

  ‘I’m sorry,’ said Alleyn steadily. ‘I’m afraid I was looking at the green smudge on your cheek.’

  She scrubbed at her face with the cuff of her smock.

  ‘I’ll go down,’ she said, and picked up the sketch.

  He stood aside, but she had to pass close to him, and again he was vividly aware of her, still with the same odd sense of surprised familiarity. She smelt of turpentine and paint, he noticed.

  ‘Well—good evening,’ she said vaguely.

  Alleyn laughed a little.

  ‘Good evening, madam.’

  She started off down the ladder, moving sideways and holding the wet sketch out over the hand-rail. He turned away and lit a cigarette. Suddenly a terrific rumpus broke out on the deck below. The hot cheap reek of frangipanni blossoms drifted up, and with it the voice of the success of the ship.

  ‘Oh, pardon me. Come right down. Gangway, fellows. Oh say, pardon me, but have you been making a picture? Can I have a
keek? I’m just crazy about sketching. Look, boys—isn’t that cute? The wharf? My, my, it’s a shame you haven’t been able to finish it, isn’t it? It would have been swell! Look, boys, it’s the wharf. Maybe a snapshot would help. We’ll surely have to watch our step with an artist on board. Say, let’s get acquainted. We’ve been celebrating and we feel fine. Meet the mob. I’m Virginia Van Maes.’

  ‘My name’s Troy,’ said a voice that Alleyn could scarcely recognize. A series of elaborate introductions followed.

  ‘Well, Miss Troy, I was going to tell you how Caley Burt painted my portrait in Noo York. You’ve heard of Caley Burt? I guess he’s one of the most exclusive portraitists in America. Well, it seems he was just crazy to take my picture—’

  The anecdote was a long one. Agatha Troy remained silent throughout.

  ‘Well, when he was through—and say, did I get tired of that dress? —it certainly was one big success. Poppa bought it, and it’s in our reception-hall at Honolulu. Some of the crowd say it doesn’t just flatter, but it looks good to me. I don’t pretend to know a whole lot about art, Miss Troy, but I know what I like.’

  ‘Quite,’ said Agatha Troy. ‘Look here, I think I’d better get down to my cabin. I haven’t unpacked yet. If you’ll excuse me—’

  ‘Why, certainly. We’ll be seeing you. Say, have you seen that guy Alleyn around?’

  ‘I’m afraid I don’t know—’

  ‘He’s tall and thin, and I’ll say he’s good looking. And is he British? Gee! I’m crazy about him. I got a little gamble with these boys, I’ll have him doing figure eights trying to dope out when the petting-party gets started.’

  ‘I’ve kissed goodbye to my money,’ one of the youths said.

  ‘Listen to him, will you, Miss Troy? But we certainly saw Mr Alleyn around this way a while back.’

  ‘He went up to the boat deck,’ said a youth.

  ‘Oh,’ said Miss Troy clearly. ‘That man! Yes, he’s up there now.’



  ‘Oh damn!’ said Alleyn softly.

  And the next thing that happened was Miss Van Maes showing him how she’d made a real Honolulu lei out of Fijian frangipanni, and asking him to come down with the crowd for a drink.

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