Sweet Danger – Margery Allingham
This is the fifth crime novel by Margery Allingham to feature Albert Campion and in many ways marks a turning point in the development of her principal character. Published in 1933, in the States it went under the titles of Kingdom of Death and then The Fear Sign, it is the last where Campion is portrayed as a rather vacuous ass, albeit one with considerable underlying intelligence and steely determination well, an obvious parody of Dorothy L Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey. Subsequently, he becomes a more cerebral character, an effective sleuth. In this book his character betwixt and between. This is also the first book in which he forms a working partnership, later to be consummated in marriage, with Lady Amanda Fitton.
Frankly, this is a rather ludicrous book with a fantastical storyline, stocked full of bizarre and eccentric characters, which betrays its age, but nonetheless is hugely entertaining if you are looking for a light and escapist read. Campion, aided and abetted by his man, the wonderfully named Magersfontein Lugg, and his friend, Guffy Randall, is called upon to establish that a small but oil-rich principality on the Adriatic coast by the name of Averna is British and, principally, belongs to a now defunct aristocratic family in Suffolk. The proof that Campion is searching for is a crown, a drum and a receipt signed by Metternich, confirming the sale of the land. If that was not difficult enough, an unscrupulous financier, Brett Savanake, and his gang of thugs are also after the same prize.
The trail leads to a pretty village in Suffolk, Pontisbright, the home of the Fittons. Amanda is the belle of the family, described as being “at a stage of physical perfection seldom attained at any age’ and possessor of hair of a ‘blazing, flaming, and yet subtle colour which is as rare a it is beautiful”. It is inevitable that Campion will fall for her. Mind you, she is a game lass and more than plays her part in thwarting the evil plans of Savanake and his pals.
The characters, for the most part, are well-written, Savanake a monstrous, loathsome man straight out of central casting, and Dr Galley delightfully over the top as a medic who has lost his marbles. The plot has many ludicrous moments, characters climbing in and out of windows, some not advancing the storyline a jot, giving the sense of being padding, and Campion jumps into a cupboard and switches identity in a way that is so obvious it is a miracle that none of the other characters caught on. The tone of the book veers between tongue-in-cheek humour, almost a parody of the genre, and a high-class thriller, as if Allingham could not quite make up her mind which way to take the story.
The showdown at the Mill is a tense, taut piece of writing, Allingham at her best, and keeps her reader gripped and anxious to know what happens. The resolution of the mystery, though, is a little disappointing, a bit rushed with Allingham giving the sense that she had had enough of the story and wanted to put it to bed as quickly as possible. She only agreed to write the book under pressure from her American publishers, after disappointing sales of Police at the Funeral and at the time she was working on what was to become the sixth in the series, Death of a Ghost.
Many consider this to be her best Campion novel. I found it a little too rushed and silly to give it that accolade, but it was an enjoyable few hours spent.