Mystery Mile – Margery Allingham
I can’t make mind up about this book, a hugely enjoyable romp of a book, first published in 1930 and, whilst technically the second in Allingham’s Campion series, the first where her sleuth takes the leading role. My quandary is whether it should just be seen as an entertaining detective mystery or was it a send up of the lighter side of the genre, particularly Dorothy L Sayers. Campion, after all, is portrayed as an eccentric, somewhat silly individual, whose innocence and seemingly off-the-wall behaviour and questioning disarms even the coldest of criminal heart. Campion is a chip off Lord Peter Wimsey’s block, but one who is dealing with much darker forces with an international reach.
Once again, we are dealing with an international gang – a trademark feature of the Allingham novels I have read to date – who are out to kill Judge Crowdy Lobbett, who has information that could unmask Mr Big. Wherever Lobbett goes, there seems to be a trail of destruction and unfortunate accidents. His associates are killed in bizarre incidents and the fear is that one day they will get the judge. Campion is hired to protect Lobbett.
We first meet the party on board the good ship Elephantine, a liner en route to Blighty. Campion first appears when he sacrifices a mouse he has adopted in the electrified contraption used by Satsuma, a Japanese magician, in his stage act, thus saving the judge’s life. On arrival in England and after another failed attempt, Campion thinks that it is best to hide the judge to a country mansion deep in the wilds of Mystery Mile, a village on an island, probably modelled on Canvey Island.
There are crimes galore, some sinister, some less serious, enough red herrings to stock a fishmonger’s stall and a wonderful array of characters. There is the local vicar, Swithin Cush, who was not all that he seemed and whose death may or may not have been suicide. Then there is the art dealer, Ali Ferguson Barber, who was also on the Elephantine and makes his way to Mystery Mile. He also is not all that meets the eye and turns out to be a very sinister individual.
A Golden Age detective story wouldn’t be a Golden Age detective story without charming, if limited, rustics and a bit of superstitious nonsense involving The Seven Whistlers. Campion weaves in and out of the story, often his whereabouts unexplained and then he suddenly pops up, with a piece of information that keeps the story moving. If you are looking for a methodical Thorndyke or an inspired Holmes, Campion is not your man. It is often difficult to discern how he has got to a particular point in his investigation. That together with some unnecessary but highly entertaining detours do not seem to matter much because the sum of all these parts is a wonderful, page-turning read.
The denouement of the book is a life and death struggle on the edge of the coast between Campion and the Mr Big, Simister, in an echo of the tussle between Holmes and Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls. On the whole, I think it was intended to be a send-up.