You could hardly meet a British family more charming than the Lampreys. So British upper-class. So eccentric. So delightful, as individuals and as a group. It really would be a pity if one of them should turn out to be a particularly brutal murderer.
That’s the premise of Ngaio Marsh’s marvelous Death of a Peer, one of her finest books--and Marsh wrote a great many fine books over her long literary career. She was one of a cluster of authors generally known as the British “crime queens,” a group that also included Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Margery Allingham. All four began writing during the so-called Golden Age of Detective Fiction, between the two world wars. But Marsh’s career stretched far beyond the Golden Age. She turned out 32 novels and a number of short stories over the course of 48 years, the last book (Light Thickens) appearing in 1982, the year of her death. To the Daily Sun of London, she was “The finest writer in the English language of the pure, classical puzzle whodunit. Among the crime queens, Ngaio Marsh stands out as an Empress.”
And yet most of her books are currently out of print in the United States. I hope that changes soon, for her fiction is particularly well written and thoroughly enjoyable.
Consider Death of a Peer. The story begins in New Zealand. Marsh was a New Zealander, although she loved England, and her principal character, Roderick Alleyn, is a Scotland Yard detective. Death of a Peer is seen largely through the eyes of a young New Zealand girl, Roberta Grey, who is befriended by the Lampreys while they are living in New Zealand. As Marsh puts it:
All her life Roberta was to put her emotional eggs in one basket. At fourteen, with appalling simplicity, she gave her heart to the Lampreys. It was, however, not merely an attachment of adolescence. She never grew out of it, and though, when they met again after a long interval, she could look at them with detachment, she was unable to feel detached. She wanted no other friends.It is amazing how much information about Roberta and about the nature of the Lampreys is conveyed in those few lines, and it is typical of the way Marsh can create truly memorable characters with just a few words.
It is the Lampreys, of course, who are central to this book--in fact, when the novel was first published in England in 1941, it was entitled A Surfeit of Lampreys. They are members of the British nobility. Lord Charles is the younger brother of Gabriel, the Marquis of Wutherwood and Rune, a very rich man indeed. Gabriel is hot-tempered and obstinate; Marsh says, “he lived in a state of perpetual offence.” By contrast, Lord Charles and the rest of the Lampreys are charming, kind, wonderful company--and completely irresponsible, financially, lurching from one money crisis to another.
After an idyllic time living in New Zealand, the Lampreys finally return to London, leaving young Roberta behind. Some years later, when her parents are killed in an accident, Roberta goes to England to live with an aunt. The aunt never appears in the story--she is ill--and Roberta, to her joy, finds herself living instead with the Lampreys, who are once again experiencing a financial predicament. Their only hope seems to be for the Marquis to help bail the family out with a few thousand pounds.
Unfortunately for them, the Marquis--or Uncle G., as the Lampreys call him--is fed up with their antics and refuses to help. But then he is murdered--and, I must warn the reader, he is murdered in a particularly unpleasant and nasty fashion. Ngaio Marsh was often quite brutal about the ugliness of murder, and I find that particularly true in this book. And just as her writing could convey the charm of a character, it could also convey terror:
Roberta took a cigarette from a box on the sideboard and hunted about the room for matches. At last she found some. She lit her cigarette and leant over the window sill. She became aware of a new sound. It came up through her conscious thoughts, gaining definition and edge. It was a thin blade of sound, sharp and insistent. It grew louder. It was inside the building, an intermittent, horridly shrill noise that came closer. A hand closed round Roberta’s heart. Someone was screaming.So the police move in, in the person of Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn and his usual team of assistants. It is worth noting that Alleyn is one of the few fictional detectives who ages, matures, and is promoted throughout his career, beginning as a mere detective inspector in 1934’s A Man Lay Dead and ultimately becoming chief superintendent in Light Thickens. Throughout, his assistants--his second-in-command, Inspector Fox, Thompson the photographer, and Bailey the fingerprint man--remain constant. In Death of a Peer, Alleyn soon finds himself falling under the Lamprey family’s charm, and he must fight to keep himself objective in this investigation and to determine whether, in the case of at least one family member, that charm may be masking a murderer.
There are plenty of suspects here, including all the members of the Lamprey family, not to mention Uncle G’s very peculiar wife, who may be mad. There are also several longtime servants of both Sir Charles’ and Uncle G’s families. There are other family members just off-stage, who make dramatic appearances from time to time and who must be added to the list of suspects. There will be a budding love affair between Roberta Grey and another character. And there will, ultimately, be another murder as well, along with links to black magic, and a number of absolutely ghastly details, which--speaking as a reader--I would just as soon not have known. Alleyn, of course, can neither be deterred nor hoodwinked, and he does bring the case and the book to a very satisfying conclusion. And, because this is a classic puzzle mystery, it is worth noting the obvious: the reader is fairly given clues, although they are sometimes quite cunningly hidden or misleading.
Marsh was a wonderful writer. Her “day job” as a theatrical producer gave her a fine insight into the world of the theater, and many of her mysteries are set in and around theaters. It’s worth noting that some important observations in this book are made by a character described only as “a police-constable who has read Macbeth.” Marsh also developed endearing regular characters, including Alleyn’s wife, the brilliant artist Agatha Troy. She doesn’t happen to appear in Death of a Peer, which is a pity.
But this book remains one of my favorites among Marsh’s works, and I really believe it is largely because the Lampreys are such marvelous characters. They are exasperating, irresponsible, and sometimes infuriating, but they are also intensely loyal to friends and family, hospitable and endearing. I reread Death of a Peer every few years, just for the sheer pleasure of meeting these characters again. I consider them old friends, and I suspect you will too.