Monday, August 19, 2013

Mystery Monday: Death of a Peer by Ngaio Marsh

Death of a Peer (Roderick Alleyn, #10)
A review of a far-from-new murder mystery by one of the greats.

Death of a Peer, by Ngaio Marsh.  303 pages, paperback.
Originally published by Little, Brown & Co. in 1940
I sourced my copy from the local library.

An early entry in Marsh's impressive collection of mysteries featuring Roderick Alleyn, of Scotland Yard, the book begins with a prelude set in New Zealand.  We are introduced to the central characters (exclusive of Alleyn), Roberta Grey and the Lamprey family.  She a local NZ kid, they a modestly noble family out from England to await a better turn in their finances.  Fast forward ten years, and a 20-ish Roberta arrives in England to live with an aunt, but instead goes to the Lamprey's in time to be there when their wealthy kinsman the Marquis of Wutherwood is murdered in their home.  Enter Alleyn, to solve this classic locked-door mystery.

Marsh is definitely not a modern writer (in the lower-case sense of "modern," i.e. writing now).  The style of the book is somewhat formal, and the story is more of an exercise in the use of the "little grey cells" (to borrow from her contemporary) than an exciting adventure.  But if the careful tracing of the alibis and effort to spot the holes before Alleyn does is your kind of game, it's very well done.

I also found it interesting that the story is much more about Roberta Grey and the Lampreys than it is about the author's famous detective.  We spend a great deal more time inside Roberta's head than Alleyn's, and in fact care more about her outcome.  This is good and bad--good, because she does it well and I found myself caring about these people, but bad because it reduces the possible outcomes--you are pretty confident that the chap she falls in love with will not be the guilty party (not from this era, or this genre.  In other books, I might have been less confident).  That may, in fact, be the biggest weakness in this well-assembled puzzle.

I think that some of Ngaio Marsh's later books are more appealing today.  But this is well-written and the mystery is worked out well, with characters we care about enough to want it solved.

Full Disclosure: I borrowed this copy of Death of a Peer from the library, and received nothing whatsoever from the author or publisher in exchange for my honest review.  The opinions expressed in this review are my own and no one else's.

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