Ngaio Marsh published her 10th Roderick Alleyn novel in 1941’s A Surfeit of Lampreys, set in 1940. Roberta “Robin” Grey, a girl from New Zealand, has become star-struck with an English noble family, the Lampreys, who have moved to the island nation for financial reasons. The family clearly love their creature comforts and frequently live beyond their means because they just can’t seem to envision living the kind of lifestyle required of their income or the unthinkable behavior of getting a job! Instead, they live lavishly until getting “into difficulties” and relying on selling their jewelry and other nice things until they can get someone to bail them out. Robin has become an honorary member of this family until they get a big inheritance and move back to England.
A few years later, with her parents newly killed in a car accident, Roberta travels the five weeks of the sea voyage to move to England from New Zealand and happily accepts the opportunity to spend a month with the Lampreys. When she arrives, Roberta discovers that her friends once again are “in trouble.” A series of misfortunes has left them on the verge of bankruptcy, with their only hope’s being a loan of £2,000 from Gabriel, who holds the formal title of Lord Wutherword and is the older brother of the family’s father, Lord Charles. But “Uncle G” has a reputation for being a hoarder, unwilling to give away any money or goods. Thus the family acquires special sherry and a valuable Chinese vase to try to put Uncle G into a happy, charitable mood. But of course the plan backfires, leading to a loud shouting match between Gabriel and Charles. The charade the young Lampreys put on is even less successful. Soon, Uncle G goes striding to the lift to leave. One of the identical twins takes Gabriel and his wife Violet down to the ground floor, and when they reach the bottom, they discover Gabriel dead, with a skewer last seen in the charade, through his eye.
Upon Gabriel’s official passing, Inspector Fox, summoned at the initial injury, brings in Detective Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn, who proceeds to interview everyone and prove that he really does deserve the reputation he has as a top investigator. His job proves even more difficult because the whole family scheme together to obfuscate everything, including the way the identical twins both claim to be the one to take Uncle G and Aunt Violet down in the lift.
Critics often cite A Surfeit of Lampreys as one of Marsh’s strongest books. I personally don’t give it as much credit as those critics, but it does have some very memorable characters and scenes. The Lampreys come across as likeable while also irresponsible. Much of the book is seen through the eyes of Roberta, who comes across as fully enamored by the Lampreys, seemingly oblivious to their faults. But then, other friends of the Lampreys rush to excuse their behavior too, in particular the doctor called to attend Gabriel after his stabbing. Also, Nigel Bathgate, the newspaper journalist who has served as Alleyn’s sidekick and who made the detective famous by calling him “handsome Alleyn” in print, fights to absolve the family of all culpability in their debts and other behaviors.
Marsh’s choice of the surname for this family carries significance because a lamprey, according to dictionary.com is “any eellike marine or freshwater fish of the order Petromyzoniformes, having a circular, suctorial mouth with horny teeth for boring into the flesh of other fishes to feed on their blood.” Most types of lampreys are parasites that live off other creatures. The Lamprey family follows this same line in living off those around them, no matter how genial they appear.
The Lampreys get referenced in other books in the series. For example, Julia Farraday in Last Ditch (1977), mentions being a distant relation of the Lampreys, and Michael, the youngest son, age 11 in the book, grows up to become a detective working under Alleyn.
As I’ve noted before in my reviews, Marsh shows her love of Shakespeare and Macbeth in particular by quoting from the play in each of the books. In this book, the play makes its appearance while Alleyn is finishing up his interviews with the Lampreys. To make the time pass, Henry, the oldest son, is reading Macbeth, and Freda, the oldest daughter, who is a theater student, quotes a famous line from the play as Macbeth descends further into depravity: “Light thickens.” In a similar manner to Macbeth, who travels into darkness in his soul, Robin Grey is about to travel to the London home of the late Lord Wutherword, a creepy home literally dark as well as figuratively so. Then, in a short while, Alleyn gets into a conversation with a beat constable, who shares his own analysis of the play and the same line of “Light thickens.” On a side note, Light Thickens is the title of Marsh’s final novel.
The audio version of the unabridged edition of this book is narrated by Philip Franks. He does a good job of portraying the Lampreys, their friends and colleagues, and Alleyn. He keeps the book moving smoothly and enjoyably.
Despite my reluctance to endorse A Surfeit of Lampreys as Marsh’s pinnacle achievement, it certainly has to be recognized as among Marsh’s most memorable. It does exhibit a strong degree of creativity. Despite the glowing perspective of so many critics, I personally give the book four stars.
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