Wednesday, 3 June 1998

Ngaio Marsh: A Surfeit of Lampreys (1941)

Edition: Collins
Review number: 59

This is one of my least favourite Ngaio Marsh novels. The crime is puzzling enough and the solution typically ingenious, and Roderick Alleyn is his usual urbane self; the problem is that I find it impossible to have any sympathy for the family at the centre of the story, the Lampreys.

The Lampreys are an upper class family always suffering from financial crises, yet unable to work or to save because of their frivolous background. Marsh keeps on emphasising the point that all who meet them cannot help but love them, because of their charm; this didn't come across to me at all. Returning to England following some years in New Zealand, they invite the head of the family to their London flat, where they hope to charm him into giving them some money. Following a grotesque set of charades and planned supposedly charming and spontaneous appeals from the various members of the family, he has a furious row with Lord Henry and leaves, only to be brutally murdered in the lift on the way down.

Under suspicion, the Lampreys show themselves at their worst, speaking French to discuss the crime in front of the PC they patronisingly assume won't be able to understand; the identical twin sons refusing to admit to which of them went down in the lift with the victim; lying about the refusal to give the money to them and so on.

The inability of the Lampreys to do anything of any use to anyone, their total parasitism on the "lower classes", and the way in which everyone looks on their egotism as charming because they are from the aristocracy - these all amount to good arguments for a socialistic view of the class system. I'm fairly sure Marsh didn't mean it that way, and it probably felt different at the time (though if I were reading this during the war and had experienced the hardship of the Depression I don't think I'd have felt very charitable towards them). It's difficult to read it without projecting 1990s attitudes, but I do hope we have moved on.

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