Tuesday Night Club: Ngaio Marsh, 1941, the Surfeit Situation

The Tuesday Night Bloggers are a loose grouping of crime Marsh logofiction 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

published 1941

Surfeit of Lampreys

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.

It’s awful.

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.


  1. Oh, Moira, I'm sorry to hear that you didn't like this. As you point out, you're absolutely not alone in that. Many people have said the same kinds of things about it. I must admit a sneaking liking for Roberta. But no, the Lampreys are certainly not portrayed as kind, loving and appealing, are they...

    1. You are right Margot - Roberta survives my disappointment, I do still like her.

  2. To be absolutely fair Alkeyn doesn't think highly of them either.

    1. Yes you are so right - I was quite surprised by that aspect, which I hadn't noticed till this reading, the final line or two is a dash of cold water...

  3. But the book's champions are many (although perhaps they may be shy to say so in this frowning context LOL). I've had bookstore customers tell me that this was the kind of family that they wished they'd had; Roberta's experience is not made up out of whole cloth.
    Marsh actually keeps dragging them in to later novels. There's one where little Michael has become a constable, and the scene is a ghastly schmaltz-fest ... and the Pharamond family in "Last Ditch" reveals that they are cousins.

    1. I can sympathize, because I did used to like it. I'm glad Kate has defended it in our Tuesday Night Club - I did look for some praise of it but couldn't find any. As you say, once a few people criticize, it's hard for others to defend.

  4. I do remember this mainly for the "her hand is in her pocket" scene but it has been a while....

    1. That was one touch I really enjoyed in fact. I'm smiling just thinking about it.

  5. Replies
    1. Can't see much meeting of minds between you and the Blessed Dame Ngaio....

  6. I have read this one, possibly twice. And I don't recall what I thought about it, but I know to this point I haven't hated any books by Ngaio Marsh. It is always interesting when a book divides readers and reviewers so much.

    1. I don't remember her books the way I do with Christie, but this is one that really stood out - so it was disappointing not to like it any more...


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