Surfeit Of Lampreys by Ngaio Marsh

Surfeit Of LampreysAnd so the month of classic Golden Age authors continues. I was convinced that it wouldn’t last this long as I’ve yet to find some solid gold in the choices that I’ve made. Knowing that it was time to give Ngaio Marsh one last try, I did a little research and came across Surfeit of Lampreys as, according to one edition, “often considered to be her finest book”, so I figured that this was the ideal choice.

The Lamprey family’s fortunes seem to go up and down like a rollercoaster and so they invite rich Uncle Gabriel to tap him for a loan. After entertaining him with some charades (more on this later), Lord Charles is disappointed that Gabriel has no intention of loaning them the money. Someone seems to be so disappointed with this that they decide to insert a large meat skewer into his eye.

With a small cast of suspects – the family, their friend Roberta (or Robin, depending on which page you’re reading – it seems to alternate freely) and their servants were the only people in the house. But with some uncertainty over when he was killed and with the family covering for each other, can Inspector “Handsome” Alleyn uncover the suspect?

I think I need to correct the claim that this is her finest book. I’ve blogged previously about Clutch of Constables – “trundles along nicely but the ending is a massive anticlimax” and False Scent – “a rather moving epilogue but too late to save it“. I didn’t rate these two much but they were better than this one. To sum this one up in a witty epithet… um… oh, I know. “Absolutely. Bloody. Awful.” That sums it up nicely.

Where to start, where to start? Well, Alleyn and Inspector Fox (still labouring under the nicknames Foxking and even Foxy at one point) are still as dull as dishwater. At least Fox seems to get annoyed at some of the games being played by the Lampreys but Alleyn tolerating the eccentricities beggars belief at times. And seriously, “Handsome”?

The characters? The Lampreys are possibly the most irritating set of suspects that I’ve ever read about. Twins who won’t admit who is sort-of a witness to the crime, for example. The family speaking in French so that the police won’t understand them and the police doing NOTHING about it – I know the policeman in the room speaks French, but the fact that they don’t complain and the Lampreys don’t work out that this means their trick doesn’t work… The dead man’s widow’s obsession with the occult… And if anyone actually understands the charade performed for Uncle Gabriel is much smarter than me. And they’ve got a stupid surname chosen only for the title of the book. And there clearly is a surfeit of them. Far too many irritating characters.

The mystery? Like The Clock Strikes Twelve, another pen-and-paper who-was-where job. It takes a while to explain things – the murder in the lift takes an age for the timings to be explained properly. It’s not misdirection, more simply not explaining things properly. And the choice of murderer is frustrating for any number of reasons that I can’t go into for fear of spoilers. Although I’ve never been close to break Rule 1 of the blog as I can’t believe that anyone would want to read this. Someone please, recommend a decent book by this author. Please.

So, overall? Very, very bad – almost painful to read at times, especially the mess of an ending. Avoid like the plague. To reiterate – Absolutely. Bloody. Awful.


    • I like a bit of romance too – it might liven up Alleyn. The only bit of contact I’ve seen between Alleyn and Troy is in Clutch of Constables, as he rides to her rescue and then banishes her from the rest of the book. That was a bit of a shame as she was much more interesting that him…


  1. You know I’ve never really thought her books were that good but everyone usually loved her so I thought it must be so etching wrong with me. Now I can just let that go…thanks!


  2. I do wonder why Fox (“my Foxkin”) never throttled “Handsome Alleyn.” Justifiable homicide, surely.

    Surfeit of Lampreys is one of the primary detective “novels of manners” of the period. If you can’t take the Lamprey family, it’s just not going to work for you. Interestingly, Marsh based them on a real family, with whom she was quite desperately enamored herself.

    Maybe you might like Colour Scheme?


  3. I’ve not read this one, but I think I’ve read eight Ngaio Marshes now and I’ve disliked them all. They’re just not interesting! I know I’m pretty critical, and I’m grumpy about a lot of Carrs and Christies that are considered classics, but at least Carr and Christie were always trying innovative things. And even when they don’t work, you can see what they’re going for. Marsh only seems interested in reaching her wordcount. Pure sawdust from start to finish.

    To be fair, if Colour Scheme is the one I’m thinking of (serial killer on a boat?) then it was at least a significant departure from the others I read. But it’s still rubbish. There’s a good idea in there, but it needs much more delicate handling than Marsh is capable of.

    There are too many books and too little time to keep giving rubbish authors chances.


    • It’s generated a morbid curiosity within me – you can’t churn out 40-odd books without generating a large readership who enjoy them. I actually understand the throng who enjoy MC Beaton – but Ngaio Marsh baffles me


  4. My favorite Marsh is actually Death in a White Tie. But I say that having not read it for, er, um, 20+ years. I do have to admit that most of the rereads I’ve done of her work in recent years haven’t stacked up as well against my previous ratings–although no “bloody awfuls” yet–Colour Scheme would be the closest. My Christie rereads have gone over much better.
    And…I actually don’t understand MC Beaton’s popularity at all–she’s okay but no better than that for me.


    • Oh–and I see Colour Scheme mentioned above. No, it’s not a serial killer on a boat. Colour Scheme is Alleyn in Australia and a much hated man dies in a steam/mud pit.


      • A quick search finds Singing In The Shrouds as the serial killer on a boat book.

        Oh and the way I see Beaton’s popularity is that they are mysteries for people who think Dame Agatha is too complicated…


  5. I prefer Black as he’s painted, from 1973, mostly I think because it’s written from the point of view of mild-mannered Samuel Whipplestone. Also I enjoyed the description of the setting in a small enclave near the Brompton Oratory. Perhaps it’s not her best but I one I liked the best.


  6. Again, I know this is an old post but I LOVED Overture to Death. It had a very spiteful, sharp tone to it, I really enjoyed the way the characters were drawn. I’ve found a lot of her books really difficult, the theatre ones especially but I second the Death in a White Tie one.


  7. In your opinion it was awful – if there’s anything worse than a book with a poor review it’s the reviewer who thinks their opinion really counts!


    • So nobody should review anything ever? Everybody has their opinions of the quality of everything – the point of a review blog is to express the opinion of the author. And my opinion is that this book is dreadful. Some people agree, some people don’t – I’m not claiming that I’m correct, but I can’t presage every comment that I make with “In my opinion” – that’s implied by the nature of the blog.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I have read 4 Marshes , artists in crime,and white tie included ,and I also find her very boring . She dislikes her own characters if they are not from Alleyn’s family and tries her best to prove them inferior in one way or the other.As a result ,very few characters are interesting or likable .And when that’s the case ,it’s impossible to stand chapters and chapters of interviews and regurgitation of interviews to sort out timetables.She simply does not belong in the same league of Christie or Allingham.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. OK, if you just don’t like a writer others love, you don’t and there’s no point discussing it. But… your comments (and those of many who agree with you) suggest that the aspects you dislike are (a) the character of the detective and (b) the description of the detective’s methods. As for the former, I do like the upper-class, rather over sensitive Alleyn. He’s not a comic cardboard cutout like Poirot, nor a detecting machine like too many to mention. He’s a man of his social background and historical period. His respect for Fox, a typical working-class copper, is a point in his favour, particularly in view of his evident difficulty in relating to those outside his own social milieu. His adoration for his wife (a better-drawn character in her own right) is more than conventional fondness. He served in the First World War, became a police officer instead of a civil servant and is embarrassed by snobbery of people like himself (e.g. the Lampreys). As for the latter, I think Marsh does quite well in portraying a detective officer of the mid-20th century using the technology and methods of the period. The repeated interviewing, of which some commentators here complain, is the whole point of how he works: a police officer of the time took detailed statements from every witness and looked for inconsistencies with the statements of others or with the physical evidence. It involves repetition and portrayal by the author of a range of personalities. If you don’t like it, you don’t like it. But that doesn’t make it bad writing. You’re entitled to say “I don’t like it”. You’re not entitled to say “it’s Absolutely Bloody Awful” without showing deeper understanding of the book than you do in your review.


    • Welcome to the blog, thanks for the kind words.

      But as I say in the review, the mystery is poor, the characters are unbearable. In my opinion, that makes this book absolutely bloody awful. In my opinion. This isn’t an academic thesis, it’s my thoughts on a book that even six years later, I still recall with horror. The nature of a review is to express the reviewer’s opinions and in this case, I think it is one of the worst books that I’ve read in the course of the blog and the fact that others rate it as one of her best baffles me completely.


  10. When I was a teenager I read The Nursing Home Murder and felt that it was the dullest book I’d ever come across. For a while I felt that this was my fault, or maybe that Golden Age mysteries just weren’t for me. I got over the latter assumption, and now reading this review I think I can safely say that it wasn’t my fault that I found Marsh so boring.


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