Marsh, Ngaio. Surfeit of Lampreys.

London: Collins, 1941.

In the Golden Age of British mystery writing, the Big Three were Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, and Ngaio Marsh. I’ve always enjoyed Sayers, though I’ve equally found Christie nearly unreadable. But it baffles me that readers today who (like my wife) own all the works of the first two in paperback reprints and reread them regularly often haven’t even heard of Marsh,

nor of her protagonist, DCI Roderick “Handsome” Alleyn. And yet, where Lord Peter Wimsey and Miss Marple exist in a sort of cozy fantasy-land, the crimes in Marsh’s novels take place in a setting that closely approximates the real world. Alleyn is a real copper who calls in fingerprint and photography experts. The murders he deals with often are horrific in their methods and the victims bleed real blood. And the crimes are solved by teamwork, by intensive investigation, and by repeatedly interviewing people, . . . not by depending on spontaneous epiphanies of “the little gray cells.”

This one comes about one-third of the way through Marsh’s thirty-two novels (all of which feature Alleyn), and I think it’s one of her best. The focus is the Lamprey family, consisting of Lord Charles (younger brother of a marquis and heir to the title), his wife, Imogen, and their six children — and all of them are notable for being absolutely charming when it comes to people and absolutely feckless when it comes to money. They live well because they don’t know any other way, though they’re frequently teetering on the edge of financial disaster. And yet, somehow, they have lots of friends and admirers. The story opens about 1936 in New Zealand (Marsh was a native-born kiwi) and introduces not only the Lampreys but Roberta Grey, a very middle-class school chum of Frid (or Frieda) Lamprey, who is caught up inextricably in the family’s glamour. Four years later, the Lampreys have returned to London and the suddenly orphaned Roberta comes to stay with them for awhile before going off to live with an aunt in Kent. Her arrival coincides with a visit to Lord Charles by his brother, Gabriel, whom Charles (on the brink of bankruptcy, naturally) intends to beg for money – and not for the first time. Gabriel is thoroughly and nastily unsympathetic, and on the way back down from their top-floor double flat, he’s murdered in the lift in a particularly gruesome way. When Alleyn and his crew arrive, the case becomes one of floor plans, time-keeping, and the working out of the movements of the Lampreys, Gabriel and his dotty wife, and the servants of both parties. And all the clues are there if you pay close attention.

But the real pleasures of this book are the extended psychological portraits the author paints of each member of the family — the somewhat vague Lord Charles; his devotedly maternal wife; his eldest son, Henry, whom the twenty-year-old Roberta is developing serious feelings for; the histrionic Frid, who is studying acting; the teenage twins, Stephen and Colin, who have their own ways of dealing with the world; the chubbily adolescent Patricia, who only wants to know what’s happening; and young Michael, whom Alleyn discovers is the best witness of all. Roberta is cast in the role of observer, a pair of outside eyes through whom we may study the dynamics of the family. And then there’s Alleyn himself and his close relationship with his protégé, DI Fox, and with journalist Nigel Bathgate, who has become his “Watson.” If you want to discover a superior alternative to plowing through Dame Agatha yet again, I strongly recommend Ngaio Marsh.

One thing, though: When this novel appeared in the U.S., the title was changed to Death of a Peer. Did the publishers think we Yanks were too ignorant to appreciate the historical reference in the original title? Even though it was seventy years ago, I think I’m insulted. . . .

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