Police at the Funeral – Margery Allingham
This is the fourth book in Allingham’s Albert Campion series, published in 1931, and the usual entertaining read. Here, Campion is not battling international gangs but rather battling to understand an eccentrically dysfunctional extended Cambridge family, the Faradays, and the murder of one of their members, Andrew Seeley.
The book starts miles away from the dreaming spires of academe in a deserted passage in central London where Inspector Stanislaus Oates of the Yard, one of the Met’s so-called big five, seeks refuge from a man who appears to be stalking him. Coincidence of coincidences, the very place he seeks refuge is the spot where Campion, his old mucker, is meeting a woman who wants his help in solving a mysterious disappearance. To compound the coincidences, the man Oates is seeking to shake off is a Faraday who turns tale when he sees Joyce Blount, another member, the lady who has the assignation with Campion.
Campion accepts the brief but Seeleys’ disappearance takes a sinister turn when his body is fished out of the water, arms and legs bound, and with a gun shot wound administered at close quarters. He stays at the Faraday’s home in the wonderfully named Socrates Close, a name not without a hint of irony as we discover later in the book, which is run with a rod of iron by the formidable grande dame, Caroline Faraday. Also living there are her three grown up children, all in their way weak and content to spend their time quarrelling and bickering, together with Joyce, the niece of her late son-in-law, and Andrew.
The police investigation is headed by Oates and while he and Campion co-operate in the main, Campion is not averse to withholding a vital piece of evidence to give him the edge. As the investigation proceeds, there are two more deaths, Julia and George, both poisoned, and a near miss, bluff William, as there seems to be a concerted plan to eradicate the Faradays. The world would probably not be too bad a place afterwards if that were to happen, but murder is murder.
There are a number of suspects, each with motive aplenty to do away with members of the family, and all with seemingly cast-iron alibis, even the drunken George and his tramp-like companion, Beveridge. The bluff but engaging William was with Andrew at the time of his disappearance, but Campion seems convinced that he did not do it, even though he suffers from blackouts and cannot control his behaviour or remember what he has done.
As you would come to expect and hope, Campion arrives at the solution ahead of Oates, but as far as the reader is concerned, it requires a considerable leap of imagination to arrive at the right conclusion. Some of the clues you need to identify what happened to Seeley and who conducted a rampageous vendetta against the Faradays are there, but not all. Allingham does not play particularly fair with her readership.
I also thought that her characterisations were fairly weak, the Faradays, with the possible exception of the old lady and the entertaining William, are provided with just enough colour to make them interesting but not to invest any emotion in. Also, reflecting the attitudes that prevailed at the time, Allingham is not averse to making remarks that would make the politically correct blanche. On the plus side, though, Campion really comes to the fore in ways that he doesn’t in other books that I have read. He is a charming, suave, debonair, witty individual who can charm and tame old dragons like Caroline and earn their undying gratitude as well as solving the odd murder.
The book was entertaining enough and enjoyable, if you did not want to play sleuth. The title, though, is a mystery. Plenty of deaths and police, but no funerals!