Monday, October 17, 2011

{review} a surfeit of lampreys

Ngaio Marsh A Surfeit of Lampreys (1940)

Nanny came in. She was the quintessence of all nannies, opinionated, faithful, illogical, exasperating, and admirable. She stood just inside the door and said: ‘Good evening, m’lady. Patricia, Michael. Come along.’
‘Oh Nanny,’ said Patch and Mike. ‘It’s not time. Oh Nanny!’
Lady Charles said: ‘Look what Lady Katherine has sent me, Nanny. It’s a hat.’
‘It’s a hot-water bottle cover, m’lady,’ said Nanny. ‘Patricia and Michael, say goodnight and come along.’
I was very excited to see Ngaio Marsh's books being reissued for the Kindle since, while I own a number of her books as real books (tree-books), they are packed away somewhere and I really can't face finding them when the need for a familiar comfort read (with murder) strikes. This is the trap of giving a lazy person 1-Click access to e-books, and I can see that I will eventually have bought two copies of everything I've ever enjoyed just because I can't be bothered going out to the shed.

Of course it would have been even more delightful to read A Surfeit of Lampreys on the Kindle if it had not been for typos such as 'Chariot' replacing 'Charlot' for someone's name. Don't real people read e-proofs?   

Anyway, A Surfeit of Lampreys [also published as Death of a Peer] is my favourite Ngaio Marsh mystery, I think, although there are a couple of other crackers (The Nursing Home Murder is very clever; and Artists in Crime, where Inspector Alleyn meets his wife-to-be, is rather lovely too, for different reasons).

There are a couple of reasons why A Surfeit of Lampreys stands out for me: (1) even when I re-read it, I couldn't figure out whodunnit; (2) the characterisation of the rather large cast of eccentric aristocrats gone to seed is spectacularly, wittily well drawn; (3) the heroine - a most sympathetic heroine - is a colonial fish-out-of-water in big scary London (something to which this reader could relate); (4) the era - the late 1930s - is one of my favourites; and (5) Marsh writes angelically well. There are also some things which I am less keen on - the snobbishness; the attention to class difference; the infallibility of Inspector 'Handsome' Alleyn - but in A Surfeit of Lampreys these things become in themselves rather significant factors in the unravelling of the case. And 'Handsome' Alleyn is given a real run for his money by the wildly eccentric Lamprey family as he attempts to uncover which one of them dispatched their rich uncle with a kitchen skewer in the elevator.
‘Two of their friends have already explained them this evening,’ said Alleyn. ‘Their descriptions tallied fairly well. Boiled down to a few unsympathetic adjectives they came to this: “Charming. Irresponsible. Unscrupulous about money. Good-natured. Lazy. Amusing. Enormously popular.” Do you agree?’
Incidentally, Alleyn "smelt pleasantly. Something like a new book in a good binding..."

Rating: comfort read, 7/10.

If you liked this... Inspector Alleyn is a bit like Josephine Tey's Inspector Grant (and there are many connections with the theatrical world in both Marsh and Tey) crossed with a rather less sensitive Lord Peter Wimsey. But I'd read Agatha Christie's Murder at the Vicarage if I wanted a really good cosy mystery.

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