The Tuesday Night Bloggers are a loose grouping of crime fiction fans who are choosing an author each month to write about - December’s author is Ngaio Marsh.
This month, I have volunteered to collect links to the posts on my blog each week – so please tell me if you are taking part. I should add that all are welcome – there are no entry criteria and there is no commitment. If you just want to write one post about one book you will be as welcome as someone writing every week for a year – just join in and send us (me) the link.
And here are this week's:
Kate Jackson on Ngaio Marsh - 5 to Try and 5 to Avoid
Noah Stewart on Scouting Ngaio Marsh - Part 1
Bev Hankins on Death at the Bar
Helen Szamuely on Ngaio Marsh as Writer
Last week's list is in this entry.
Embarking on this month, I found that Ngaio Marsh had written 32 books from 1934 to 1982. I decided for the Tuesday Night Club that I would divide those neatly into four groups of 8, and pick one from each era. Last week was Artists in Crime. This week I am looking at Surfeit of Lampreys, AKA Death of a Peer.
As it happens, 1941 is the year chosen for the December Crime of the Century over at Rich Westwood’s Past Offences blog, so I am killing two birds with one stone with this entry.
Surfeit of Lampreys by Ngaio Marsh
also published as Death of a Peer
Now that the last trunk was closed and had been dragged away by an impatient steward, the cabin seemed to have lost all its character. Surveying it by lamplight, for it was still long before dawn, Roberta felt that she had relinquished her ownership and was only there on sufferance. Odd scraps of paper lay about the floor; the wardrobe door stood open; across the dressing-table lay a trail of spilt powder. The unfamiliar black dress and overcoat in which she would go ashore hung on the peg inside the door and seemed to move stealthily, and of their own accord, from side to side. The ship still creaked with that pleasing air of absorption in its own progress.
Outside in the dark the lonely sea still foamed past the porthole, and footsteps still thudded on the deck above Roberta's head. But all these dear and familiar sounds only added to her feeling of desolation. The voyage was over. Already the ship was astir with agitated passengers. Slowly the blackness outside turned to grey. For the last time she watched the solemn procession of the horizon, and the dawn-light on cold ruffles of foam.
She put on the black dress and, for the hundredth time, wondered if it was the right sort of garment in which to land. It had a white collar and there was a white cockade in her hat so perhaps she would not look too obviously in mourning.
"I've come thirteen thousand miles," thought Roberta. "Half-way round the world. Now I'm near the top of the world. These are northern seas and those fading stars are the stars of northern skies."
commentary: Oh dear oh dear oh dear. I would say that no book divides Marsh fans like this one: many people hate it. My friend and Marsh expert Lucy Fisher says
This is a book to avoid –there is a lot of venom directed at unpleasant characters. And the characters we are supposed to like are quite unbearable.(Lucy is a very knowledgeable fan, and her views on Marsh are a great resource.)
Helen Szamuely is another of the Tuesday Night Bloggers, and she very strongly dislikes this one too. Noah Stewart – in last week’s characteristically illuminating post on his least and most favourite Marsh books – said:
I don’t like it at all. There, I’ve said it. Apparently I am a curmudgeon, because I do not think the Lamprey family is charming and zany and madcap and devil-may-care; I think they are loathsome and awful.I remembered it as being enchanting and charming, I was lined up on the other side. (though right now finding it hard to identify anyone who does like it…) And then I made the mistake of re-reading it for Marsh month. As I say: oh dear oh dear oh dear.
The Lampreys are a family of English nobs with no money. On a sojourn in New Zealand they met Roberta, the young lady above, and now she is to visit them in London. They greet her at the dockside by performing a haka. So far, so good – and I really like the passage above, very early in the book, which I found atmospheric and real.
The problem is the Lampreys, who are not funny and clever and entertaining: they are horrible, charmless, snobbish and vilely dishonest. They are snooty about everyone else in their jovial way, but their own manners and customs are quite shocking. That doesn’t stop themselves, and Roberta, and the investigating Inspector Alleyn, from comparing them favourably with the lower classes – something the reader is not inclined to do. The family listen at doors, sponge off relations, live a life of great luxury on other people’s money, and don’t do a hand’s turn of work. Meanwhile there is a lot of unironic sniffing about ‘housemaids’ and their behaviour, and a particular servant who listens at doors – something the whole family lines up to do itself. At one point much is made of a family member giving his ‘word of honour’, but nothing makes you feel this is trustworthy.
It’s a dud as an investigation too. A close relation of the Lampreys is murdered, and there is a very complex set up of two flats and a lift to work our way through. The murder is quite gruesome, and the family show their great sensitivity by repeatedly telling us that the dying moments of the victim, and the horror of his wife, are ‘disgusting’ and ‘revolting.’
Marsh was noted for her uninspired middles, and this is one of the worst. On p 166 in my copy, Alleyn gives a summary of the case so far – who was where, what was going on in the lift. The next 100 pages take the investigation no further at all – apart from a quite enjoyably ghoulish sequence in a mysterious dark house. And then there is a complete copout of a solution.
I must have been very young and impressionable when I last read it.
Lucy says ‘unreadable’. Yes.
Let’s hope for something better next week.
There is one other book from this quadrant of Marsh’s career on the blog: the wonderful Colour Scheme from 1943.
The picture of a 1940s outfit is from Kristine’s photostream.