Thursday, October 18, 2018

Death of a Peer: Review

Alleyn grinned, "No," he said. I'm not bored by my job. One gets desperately sick of routine at times but it would be an affectation to pretend one was bored. People interest me and homicide cases are so terrifically concerned with people.

Death of a Peer (originally published as A Surfeit of Lampreys; 1940) by Ngaio Marsh features the very interesting, very charming and very peculiar Lamprey family. Alleyn will certainly get his fill of interesting when he manages to work out who coldbloodedly murdered Gabriel Lamprey, Marquis of Wutherwood and Rune with a kitchen skewer while he waited in the elevator outside the family's London top-floor flat.

The Lampreys--at least Lord Charles, his wife, and their brood of children--love to sport the eccentric, grand style of the aristocracy. They simply exude charm and really seem to be quite nice people even if they are a bit clueless about how to hang onto money and often find themselves going through one "financial crisis" or another. They especially seem nice to Roberta Gray who fell quite in love with the family and all its eccentricities when the Lampreys came to New Zealand for a while during one of their crises.

At the story's beginning, Roberta has lost her parents and come to England to live with her aunt. But before she heads to the family bosom, she stops for a bit to visit her favorite family--the Lampreys. She arrives just in time for another financial crisis and to witness the family's massive effort to charm Uncle G (as the Marquis is familiarly known) into floating them another loan. They plan a nice little game of charades as a pleasant entertainment and Michael (the youngest) is prepared to butter up dear old uncle with a present of a rare vase. But the efforts are not a rousing success and Uncle G and Lord Charles have quite an argument about the latter's inability to manage funds. 

Uncle G slams out in a huff, hollers for his eccentric wife (who has taken up some kind of mystic, voodoo-like interest) to join him, and plops himself down on the elevator seat to wait. She joins him as does one of the Lamprey twins (yes, there are twins involved). The elevator starts down, there is a lot of screaming, the elevator comes back up, and there is Uncle G, dying from a skewer to the brain. No wonder Violet, his Marchioness, is screaming the house down.

Once the doctor and the police are called, the Lampreys close ranks (because, naturally, none of them could have done it--no matter how annoying it was that Uncle G wasn't going to cover any more crises). Alleyn has to work his way through half-truths, bald-faced lies, and innocent comments with hidden meanings as he interviews the household. He'll also have to sleuth out which twin was in the elevator because everyone claims not to know and the twins each claim to have been the one. In the end, it's Michael (dubbed by the family as the least truthful--in an obvious effort to keep Alleyn from even talking to him) who has the most revealing information to give--if Alleyn can interpret it properly. But...he wouldn't be Alleyn if he didn't.

This is a highly entertaining mystery with an entertaining cast of characters. The Lampreys are so very odd, such evident scroungers, and, as Roberta will attest, quite irresistibly charming. One really doesn't want the murderer to be one of them and hopes that all the evidence pointing against them is just a bunch of red herrings. Marsh manages to weave a very interesting murder plot into a pretty commentary on the aristocracy at the beginning of the second world war. It's quite obvious that the Lampreys of the world are on shaky ground with the changes coming and they're going to have to learn to change if they're going to survive (possible forthcoming inheritance or not....). Another of my Marsh favorites. It appears that most of her novels that I like best have to do with character from Bunchy in Death in a White Tie to the various characters in Death at the Bar to the Lampreys here--I enjoy Marsh's characters and the ways in which she has them interact. ★★★★

[Finished 10/3/18]

 A few more quotes:

"It is scarcely possible that it can be a case of suicide or of accident. The word that must be in all your minds is one that, unfortunately, calls up all sorts of extravagant images. Detective fiction has made so much of homicide investigations that I'm afraid that to most people they suggest official misunderstandings, dozens of innocent persons in jeopardy, red herrings by the barrowload, and surprise arrests. Actually, of course, the investigation in a case of homicide is a dull enough business and it is extremely seldom that any innocent person is in the smallest degree likely to suffer anything but the inconvenience of routine." ~Inspector Roderick Alleyn

"Do you read detective novels, Br'er Fox?"
"No," said Fox. And perhaps with some idea of softening this shortest of all rejoinders he added: "It's not for want of trying. Seeing the average person's knowledge of the department is based on these tales I thought I'd have a go at them. I don't say they're not very smart. Something happening on every page to make you think different from what you thought the one before, and the routine got over in the gaps between chapters....I don't say it's not clever but it's fanciful." 

Fox: The truth is homicidal cases are not what people would like them to be. How often do we get  a murder with a row of suspects, each with motive and opportunity?
Alleyn: Not often, thank the lord, but it has happened.
Fox: Well, yes. But motives aren't all of equal weight. You don't have much trouble in getting at the prime motive.
Alleyn: No.
Fox: No. Mostly there's one suspect and our problem is to nail the job on him.

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