RogerBW's Blog

Surfeit of Lampreys, Ngaio Marsh 04 January 2017

1940 classic English detective fiction; tenth of Marsh's novels of Inspector Roderick Alleyn. The Lampreys are an impoverished aristocratic family; after Lord Charles's rich brother refused to give them yet another handout, he was found stabbed to death. Mad wife? Annoyed brother? Random stranger? Well, it'll never be that last in a classic mystery. US vt Death of a Peer.

This is a mystery of timetables, and a reader who is to have any hope of solving it had better take notes: who claims to have been where and seen whom, in what sequence? The murderous action takes place entirely in a pair of flats on the same floor of a tall (for the era) block and the lift that gives access to them, and a map would have been helpful.

Again, Marsh shows no particular interest in the phoney war: one of the Lampreys has joined the Territorials, but doesn't regard it as an important job or his duties as at all onerous. Apart from the timetables, the book is very much about them (and Roberta Grey, an orphan from New Zealand who met one of the daughters at school there and is swept up into their wake in England, thus providing a viewpoint for events before the police are called in).

Frid always sympathized when Roberta said her people were poor, as though they were all in the same boat, but the poverty of the Lampreys, as Roberta was to discover, was a queer and baffling condition understood by nobody, not even their creditors, and certainly not by poor Lord Charles with his eye-glass, his smile and his vagueness.

They're clearly a dying breed, and they know it; drifting vaguely through life, with interests rather than jobs, hasn't been sustainable for a while, and some time soon they're finally going to have to learn to do something. ("And even now, at twenty-five, He has to WORK to keep alive!") They're perhaps rather too blatantly Micawberish (even being described as such by Roberta), which lets the bones of the plot show through briefly, but mostly they're interesting as people even if one wouldn't want to know them in reality.

"My dear, how does one run into debt? It simply occurs, bit by bit. And you know, Robin, I have made such enormous efforts. The children have been wonderful about it. The twins and Henry have answered any number of advertisements and have never given up the idea that they must get a job. And they've been so good about their fun, enjoying quite cheap things like driving about England and staying at second-rate hotels and going to Ostend for a little cheap gamble instead of the Riviera where all their friends are."

But it's not just the Lampreys and their servants crowded into the story: it's Uncle Gabriel, his wife who's decided spiritualism is boring and black magic is much more the thing, and their servants who are, of course, not going to tell tales about them. But other people are.

"She started by taking up with a clergyman in Devon who has discovered an evil place on Dartmoor. It seems that he told Aunt V. that he thought he might as well sprinkle some holy water on this evil place but when he went there the holy water was dashed out of his hands by an unseen power. He lent Aunt V. some books about black magic and instead of being horrified she took the wrong turning and thought it sounded fun. I understand she goes to the black mass and everything.

This is a cunning observation of people who are on stage all the time, whose entire lives are performances; if their statements come over as a little crooked, a little off, it's because they're performing the grief-stricken family as they perform everything else, unconvincingly.

Alleyn felt quite certain that there was more than a touch of bravura in this rapid flow of narrative. It was a little too bright; the inconsequence was overstressed; the rhythm somewhere at fault. He thought that he was being shown a perilous imitation of the normal Lady Charles Lamprey by a Lady Charles Lamprey who was by no means normal.

Nigel Bathgate returns, though he only shows up about two-thirds of the way through the book and is largely superfluous. Agatha Troy is mentioned in passing, not even by name, which seems a waste after the effort made over several books to introduce her. Fox and Bailey are back in relatively small roles, and the return of the perfect old family solicitor Mr Rattisbon is welcome.

"Under less extraordinary circumstances..." he began, and Alleyn listened to an exposition of Mr. Rattisbon's professional reticence under less extraordinary circumstances. Gradually, however, small flakes of information were wafted through the dry wind of his discourse.

I think that one of my problems with the book is that I didn't particularly like the Lampreys: I've met plenty of charming spongers and as a rule I don't get on with them. I got the impression (but can't be entirely sure) that Marsh meant them to be at least somewhat sympathetic – eccentric, and sometimes too self-consciously so, but basically "good" except of course for any putative murderer – so I tried to get over that hump, but I didn't entirely succeed. On the other hand there is a truly superb scene on the Embankment where Alleyn discusses Macbeth with a night-duty constable. Overall there isn't quite the same sense of fun as with some of Marsh's earlier books; it's sometimes a bit of a slog, especially in the early chapters.

Followed by Death and the Dancing Footman.

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Previous in series: Death at the Bar | Series: Roderick Alleyn | Next in series: Death and the Dancing Footman

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