Many of Ngaio Marsh’s books start out as comedies of manners; halfway through (or even later) a murder occurs, and Inspector Roderick Alleyn shows up to solve the case. Life can then return to its original comedic form. Death of a Peer is a prime example of Marsh’s talent for this type of mystery.
The Lampreys are a family living hopelessly above their means, relying on an older brother — who inherited the family title and money — to get them out of their financial difficulties. They are a charming but exasperating group whose idea of economizing is to go to the Riviera off-season, and of course not one of them is equipped to earn an income. When Lord Wutherwood, the titled brother, refuses further assistance and is gruesomely murdered, most of the Lampreys come under suspicion, and it is Alleyn’s job to unravel the lies and evasions and find the killer.
One of the few non-Lampreys in the book is Roberta Grey, a young woman from New Zealand, through whose eyes the reader sees many of the events in the story. Marsh describes Roberta’s reactions to her first arrival in London so vividly that there is little doubt that it is Marsh’s own delight in first visiting London that is being portrayed.
In classic Golden Age fashion, Marsh presents the reader with floor plans and timetables, which might be helpful in solving the crime or perhaps in misdirecting our attention. This book was on several lists of the Best Mysteries of the 20th Century (notably that of The London Times and the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association), but I was not that impressed with the mystery. It is, however, an example of Marsh at her comedy-of-manners best, and I greatly enjoyed it for that.