Death of a Peer (Surfeit of Lampreys), Ngaio Marsh. New York, Harper Collins: New York, 2009.
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.