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Oldies But Goodies

Death of a Peer, Ngaio Marsh

(out of print, check for used copies at our ABE store).

Death of a Peer by Ngaio Marsh I admit it - I have a favorite mystery: Death of a Peer. It's the one I've read a dozen or so times already, and probably will read a dozen more. It's the one I, a book dealer, tracked down on the internet to find in first edition. It's the one I took with me to read in a movie line once and the lady in front of me saw what I was reading and said, "Death of a Peer! What are you doing wasting your time at a movie?" She was right, the movie has been long forgotten, but Death of a Peer remains as charming, precise and funny as the first time I read it. What's so great about it? Our book club was split on it - "too many characters" - but that's what so great about it. Lots of characters, all of whom are memorable and distinctive. Actually, that's only one of the great things about this book.

Ngaio Marsh was capable of great heights and great depths, where the stories didn't sparkle and she seemed to be slogging through a puzzle for its own sake. Death of a Peer, though, written in 1940, incorporates all her strengths. She takes a strong character, Roberta Grey, a young girl from New Zealand, and deftly portrays her infatuation with the Lampreys, a titled English family who are frequently financially strapped but whose ideas of cutting back on expenses are pretty funny. This is done in a quick chapter, setting the scene for the rest of the book. In the next chapter, Roberta, grown up and mourning her parents, is on her way to England to live with her aunt. When her aunt fortuitously falls ill, the Lampreys, now back in England, intercept Roberta and take her home with them. The feeling Marsh is able to convey of Roberta being in London for the first time - as well as her sometime homesick longing for New Zealand - is movingly done, and done so quickly and deftly you almost absorb it unconsciously.

Roberta of course joins the Lamprey family in a crisis - they've lost their money again and Lord Charles must ask his unpleasant older brother, the Earl of Wutherwood - for help. They are anxiously awaiting his visit, and hoping his peculiar wife, Violet, who studies witchcraft as a hobby, doesn't accompany him. Of course she does, and not only does Lord Wuthwerwood appear, but there's a "man in possession" in the kitchen - he's meant to repossess the furniture. The Lampreys, with a great deal of charm and subterfuge, have managed to hold him off. The Lampreys to a man are completely charming and all so well sketched in they stay with you. There are the parents, rather vague and kind; the blonde twins, Colin and Stephen; the outrageous Frid, who wants to be an actress; Henry, the oldest, who seems to be in love with Roberta; and the younger two, Patch and Mike, who are not neglected, though the reader will be struck by the fact that a boy of 11 in 1940 was far younger than a boy of 11 is today. "Nanny" is still in the picture, and the whole is completed by the Earl of Wutherwood's servants, Tinkerton and Giggle.

The story involves a gruesome murder - the victim is of course the unpleasant Lord Wutherwood - involving the interception of the dashing Inspector Alleyn, at his Shakespeare quoting best. A scene with a beat constable about the criminal nature of Lady MacBeth proves inspirational, as well as setting a creepy atmosphere with just a few lines from the play. Alleyn and his assistant, Fox, motor through this investigation - while it's complicated, and a more astute reader than myself would be needed to decipher the complicated time table - it's never tedious. I knew the solution but still had to flip back, on my latest rereading, to verify what the narrative was telling me. It winds up with a bang up scene in the dour Victorian mansion that the Wutherwoods use when in the "city" - it's complete with a housekeeper in black, who greets Henry and Roberta at the door "like all portresses of elfland" with "You are expected." The scene is gothic, yet believably set in bustling 1940's London. When Henry and Roberta leave the house or the Lamprey apartment, you can almost feel the relief of the fresh air yourself. This book remains one of the most evocative and entertaining of all of Marsh's novels, as well as one of the most deeply felt, and that's saying a lot. If you've never read it, you have a treat in store.

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