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Surfeit of Lampreys (1940)

by Ngaio Marsh

Series: Roderick Alleyn (10)

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8921920,160 (3.79)41
Ngaio Marsh's most popular novel begins when a young New Zealander's first contact with the English gentry is the body of Lord Wutherford - with a meat skewer through the eye... The Lampreys had plenty of charm - but no cash. They all knew they were peculiar - and rather gloried in it. The double and triple charades, for instance, with which they would entertain their guests - like rich but awful Uncle Gabriel, who was always such a bore. The Lampreys thought if they jollied him up he would bail them out - yet again. Instead, Uncle Gabriel met a violent end. And Chief Inspector Alleyn had to work our which of them killed him...… (more)
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English (18)  Danish (1)  All languages (19)
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Summary: A New Zealander’s visit to a happy-go-lucky English family is interrupted by the gruesome murder of Lord Charles’ brother in the elevator serving their flat, making the family prime suspects for Scotland Yard detective Roderick Alleyn

Ngaio Marsh, along with Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, and Margerie Allingham, was one of the crime queens of the golden age of British crime fiction. She wrote a total of 32 Roderick Alleyn mysteries. This one is a special treat, both because of the unusual family, and connected characters, most of whom are possible suspects in a murder.

Death of a Peer is narrated largely through the eyes of a young girl from New Zealand, Roberta “Robin” Grey, who met the family, the Lampreys, while they tried their hands at becoming New Zealand landowners. Even then, what stands out is that this fun-loving family never really seems to apply itself to anything, is always in financial straits, and never takes this too seriously. After they returned to London, Robin is invited to stay with an aunt, but due to the aunt’s health, first stays with the Lampreys. Oh, what fun–especially with the eldest son Henry, to whom she is drawn.

Maybe not so much. Once again the Lampreys are up to their ears in debt and being hounded by debt collectors. Lord Charles, the head of the family hopes to get a bailout from his older brother, Gabriel, Marquis of Wutherwood and Rune. Uncle Gabriel and his wife, Aunt V. agree to a visit. Aunt V. is a witch and an eccentric, mentally unstable character. While Aunt V. visits with the women, the children listen in the next room as Uncle G. refuses the loan and the two brothers exchange harsh words. He leaves, sits down in the lift awaiting his wife, calls out to her twice, then they depart, helped by one of the twins.

Robin hears all this and then a loud shrieking as the lift comes back to the third floor. The doors open, Aunt V staggers out, beside herself, and the family sees a slumped over Uncle G., dying of fatal and gruesome wound from a skewer, earlier used in a skit put on by the children.

Enter Roderick Alleyn, whose challenge is made more difficult by this family who presents a united front. The identical twins, Colin and Stephen will not reveal which of them went to the elevator. Lord Charles stands to inherit, but the whole family has an interest. None of them, including the charming Henry holds down a job. Most helpful to Alleyn are the young child Michael and Robin, in her memory of the movements of various people, including Baskett, the butler, Giggles, the chauffer, and Tinkerton, Aunt V.’s attendant. This is despite her lie about the outcome of the meeting between Lord Charles and Gabriel.

This has it all, including an edge-of-the-seat ending, intricate plot, fascinating unusual characters, and the modest Alleyn who patiently works to connect all the dots. These books have been out of print (my copy was an old paperback literally falling apart) but have recently come on the market as e-books. Each of the “crime queens” have their own style. If you like this period, be sure to try out Ngaio Marsh. This one is a good place to start. ( )
  BobonBooks | Jan 19, 2021 |
Title page wanting ( )
  ME_Dictionary | Mar 19, 2020 |
Another great vintage mystery. I didn’t enjoy this one as much as A Man Lay Dead, but it was still very good. The characters are always terrific and the mystery was great. ( )
  BookishHooker | Dec 16, 2019 |
Sept. 2019 reread via my dad's Kindle:

I read this mystery years ago and found upon rereading that while I remembered the Lampreys, I had no idea who the culprit was. I did manage to pick up on the most important clue but failed to see what Alleyn saw about what it meant. On another note - I find that this book was originally called "A Surfeit of Lampreys"; as with Agatha Christie books, I often believe I have found one that I haven't read before only to discover that it is just that the American edition had a different name... So, one book less in this series left unread. ( )
  leslie.98 | Sep 2, 2019 |
Marsh is probably the one of the 1930s "queens of English crime" that I've read least of. Her work doesn't have the inescapable ubiquity of Agatha Christie, and it doesn't seem to have any characteristics that particularly grab me in the way that a Dorothy L. Sayers novel would. This book, her tenth, attracted me a bit more than the two or three others I've read, but I still found the whole experience a bit bland.

It's a good old-fashioned English detective mystery, with everything you could want in term of butlers, peers, housemaids, a running joke about Shakespeare, an unconventional murder weapon, and a plot that requires you to study a plan of the building to make sense of who was where at the time of the crime. A marquess is found dead in the lift after visiting his Micawberesque younger brother, Lord Charles Lamprey, and Chief Inspector Alleyn is called in to investigate. Although published in wartime, it's set - and was presumably written - in the lonodn of '38 or '39, when war was still something looming on the horizon. The plot hangs together as well as these things ever do, the Lampreys and their many children are entertaining, in a disarming-upper-class-charm kind of way, and there is a certain autobiographical conviction to the passages where the point of view shifts to the young New Zealander Roberta Grey, but there are also some rather poorly-written scenes with lower-class characters. And Alleyn never quite becomes human enough to be an interesting detective. Pleasant, but nothing special. ( )
  thorold | Apr 10, 2017 |
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Dedication
For
Sir Hugh & Lady Acland
with my love

For the one since he has helped me so often with my stories and for the other since she likes stories about London
First words
Roberta Grey first met the Lampreys in New Zealand.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Originally published as 'Surfeit of Lampreys', retitled 'Death of a Peer' in the USA.
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Ngaio Marsh's most popular novel begins when a young New Zealander's first contact with the English gentry is the body of Lord Wutherford - with a meat skewer through the eye... The Lampreys had plenty of charm - but no cash. They all knew they were peculiar - and rather gloried in it. The double and triple charades, for instance, with which they would entertain their guests - like rich but awful Uncle Gabriel, who was always such a bore. The Lampreys thought if they jollied him up he would bail them out - yet again. Instead, Uncle Gabriel met a violent end. And Chief Inspector Alleyn had to work our which of them killed him...

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Book description
Roberta (aka Robin) from New Zealand, visits London family. Poor aristocrats need to borrow money from a rich, mean uncle (with a crazy wife). Refuses, then murdered in the lift as he is leaving the gathered family - including twin boys. The chauffeur, Giggle, dies also. Much of the story consists of Inspector Alleyn's interviews and detail of who was where in the few minutes after the argument and uncle leaving in the lift.
    -----------------------------------

There was no doubt the Lampreys were charmers who sported the grand style and didn't have a shilling.
But  when Lord Charles Lamprey's rich old brother met an untimely end, the question was raised - were they also cold-blooded killers?

Some words by Shakespeare cue Inspector Alleyn in a case with many strutting players and one star - a murderer.
    --------------------------------------

With a 'sidekick' named Shakespeare, Inspector Alleyn singles out a killer from a glittering array of suspects ....

LORD CHARLES LAMPREY - a high-gloss nobleman with no money.
 
COLIN AND STEPHEN - his twin sons, both of whom claim to have ushered the victim to the scen of the crime

VIOLET, MARCHINONESS OF WUTHERWOOD - his sister-in-law and a black-magic woman
 
ROBERTA GREY - pretty young housekeeper in love with a lamprey - if not the truth
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