A review of Surfeit of Lampreys by Ngaio Marsh
Originally published in 1941 and going by the rather prosaic title of Death of a Peer in the States, this is considered to be Marsh’s finest. I have not read enough of her books to make that assertion, and, in truth, it has taken a while for me to warm to her, but I enjoyed this one.
What made it for me was the quality of Marsh’s writing – she is a novelist who happens to write murder mysteries and takes her time to paint her canvas, to sketch her characters, to allow the reader the opportunity to understand the dynamics of the plot. The Lampreys are a wonderfully comic family, full of eccentricity, hopeless with money, imbued with the spirit of Micawberism, full of esprit de corps and fiercely loyal to each other, something that irritates Chief Inspector Alleyn and Inspector Fox and hampers their investigations.
We first meet them in Marsh’s homeland of New Zealand. Coming into some money, they move back to London but an unwise business deal and their general inability to cut their cloth according to their means has led to another financial crisis. There is even a bailiff in the kitchen. In a desperate last throw of the dice, Charles, the head of this branch of the Lampreys, invites his elder and childless brother, the Marquis of Wutherwood over to their apartment at Pleasaunce Court Mansions to ask him for £2,000 to tide him over.
The Marquis visits along with his wife, Lady G, who dabbles in witchcraft and black magic, is widely regarded as mad and detests her husband. Also paying a surprise visit is the whispering aunt, Lady Kit, who mysteriously disappears at the vital moment. The Marquis turns down the request, leading to a heated argument, and storms out of the flat. He is found dead in the lift. Marsh has a penchant for unusual and innovative modes of murder and his lordship has been stabbed in the eye with a kitchen skewer. Death was not instantaneous, but the victim was not compos mentis enough to say whodunit. His death, though, instantaneously transformed the financial fortunes of the junior branch of the Lampreys.
At the time of the murder, as well as the surfeit of Lampreys there are several ancillary characters, mainly long-serving servants, including the splendidly named Giggle, the Marquis’ chauffeur, and Lady G’s rather austere and sinister maid, all of whom, in their way, have reasons to do away with the peer. It is the task of Roderick Alleyn, ably assisted by his sidekick Fox, to piece together the puzzle.
What, in other hands, could have been a tedious investigation into alibis, comings and goings, and attempts to arrive at precise timings is handled with a light touch. The Marquis’ corpse is further mutilated whilst it is lying at rest, an assault which leads to another murder and an unravelling of the mystery. While there is a surfeit of suspects, there are really few who could really have done it.
Marsh’s use of the character of Roberta Grey, also, confusingly, called Robin interchangeably by the family, as a key character in the book’s construction is fascinating. She is a Kiwi, having made friends with the family, in particular the eldest son, Henry – their dalliance provides the story with its obligatory love interest – and has just arrived in London to stay with the Lampreys in time to be caught up in the murder. She provides an intimate yet outsider’s guide to the family and while she too feels loyalty to them, unwittingly, holds part of the key to resolving the mystery.
Given the luxury of time and space that Marsh allowed herself in setting up the mystery and developing the characters, the denouement seemed a bit rushed and bitty. Perhaps she had realised that the charm of the book lay in her characters rather than in a murder plot that was barely credible. Nonetheless, I was happy to be swept along with it, enjoyed the repartee between Alleyn and Fox, and some of her characters will stay long in my memory.