Look To The Lady

Look to the Lady – Margery Allingham

Published in Britain in 1931, it is the third of Allingham’s novels to feature her leading man, Albert Campion, and his faithful valet and ruffian, the wonderfully named, Magersfontein Lugg. It was published in the States under the more prosaic title of The Gyrth Chalice Mystery. It is a wonderfully engaging, slightly ridiculous tale with a delightful cast of memorable characters and dastardly villains. Although there is a murder along the way, which Campion solves, and most of the action takes place within that most reliable of detective tropes, a country estate, to my mind it is more of a thriller than a murder mystery, and all the better for it.

Allingham seems obsessed with international conspiracies and, in this book, we meet an international gang of thieves whose aim is to steal the rarest of art treasures and sell them to specialist private collectors. The Gyrth family are the custodians of a chalice, reputedly over a thousand years old, and, naturally, it is on the gang’s radar screen.

The heir to the Gyrth estate, Val, is down on his luck when we first meet him, living as a tramp and about to be kidnapped by the ruffians, presumably as a hostage to be bartered for the treasure. Campion steps in and foils the kidnap. It is his mission, his employers are equally as shady as the art cabal, is to foil the theft. Under the terms of engagement, the thieves will only abandon their attempts if their employer dies. So, as well as thwarting the thieves, Campion will have to murder the person who wants to own the chalice.

The book is melodramatic in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way. Amongst the cast list we find a band of sinister gypsies who have encamped near the Gyrth country estate, an unpleasant aunt of Val’s who is promptly killed, an American professor and his attractive daughter, an ancient tower with a hidden room in it, things that go bump in the night with a penchant for driving people to distraction, and a killer racehorse.

Campion, who is drawn as a sort of Lord Peter Wimsey character with a bit more physicality about him is, naturally, up to the challenge. For me, the character of the story is Lugg. He provides moments of comedy, is an ex-con and gives Campion with added muscle but is not averse to taking umbrage with his employer.      

Perhaps with a knowing nod to Holmes, Campion is persuaded to explain his detective methods. “The process of elimination, said he oracularly…combined with a modicum of common sense, will always assist us to arrive at the correct conclusion with the maximum of possible accuracy and the minimum of hard labour. Which being translated means: I guessed it”. The clues are all there for the attentive reader to follow, but Campion is no Thorndyke. He seems to make the right choices and pops up at the opportune moment.

Allingham’s style is easy on the reader, her characterisations well drawn, and she knows how to ratchet up the tension when necessary. It makes for a wonderful book and a story to immerse yourself in if you fancy a bit of pure escapism laced with a modicum of lunacy.

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