Of all the Golden Age grande dames, Ngaio Marsh is the one I’ve read least. Somehow, Roderick Alleyn never captured my imagination or my loyalty the way that Lord Peter Wimsey or Albert Campion did. But now I find myself tracking down Marsh’s books and devouring them, to make up for lost time.
Clutch of Constables was written in 1968, a good twenty years after the Golden Age of British mystery ended, but it has all the hallmarks of a Golden Age novel: a small cast of eccentric characters, any one of which is a likely suspect, a clever amateur detective, and even a plodding police inspector — but is he really the plodder that he appears to be? There’s a map and a cast of characters at the front of the book too.
Troy Alleyn, the famous painter and wife of Superintendent Roderick Alleyn, decides on impulse to take a short river cruise while her husband is off on a trip of his own. Once on board the Zodiac riverboat, she finds that the person whose cancelled reservation enabled her to get a room at the last minute has been found murdered in London. Soon after the cruise begins, another passenger drowns. Was she also murdered? Troy’s letters to Alleyn convince him that she too may be in danger, and that one of her fellow passengers may be the notorious criminal Foljambe, aka The Jampot.
The reader gets a clue early on that Foljambe has a physical attribute that immediately identifies him, though what it is isn’t revealed. Naturally, it turns out that every passenger on the boat has some notable feature: one is black, one has a “not unattractive cast” in one eye, one walks with a limp, one is missing an eye, and one wears a hearing aid. So which one is Foljambe?
The pace of the book may seem slow to readers used to slam-bang action, but I found this leisurely cruise down the unnamed River an intriguing and entertaining read.