A review of Death of a Ghost by Margery Allingham
Is the wearing of a tartan waistcoat the sign of incipient mental collapse? For many it may point to dubious taste but in the cosy world that Allingham paints in this, the sixth outing for her amateur sleuth, Albert Campion, originally published in 1934, it is a clincher. Upon such small details can hang a person’s fate.
The story is less of a whodunit, the culprit is obvious and revealed midway through the book, and more of a why and how did they do it. Campion, too, has a more subdued role and one that fits more easily with his persona, inhabiting London’s art world rather than battling with gangs of international criminals. Nevertheless, he still has time to put himself in danger before bringing the story to its conclusion.
Allingham chooses to narrate the story in the third person, a technique which allows her to change perspective and give insights into the actions and thoughts of some of the other characters, rather than anchoring it solely to the perspective and current knowledge of her sleuth. This kept the storyline fresh and interesting, although Campion’s take on matters does come through loud and clear when appropriate.
The characters in the story are well developed and Allingham takes time to let the reader understand how they tick and their jealousies and possible motives. She explores their psychology more than most writers of this genre did at the time. Indeed, the story demands that, as what proves to be a complicated plot turns on their jealousies, their pasts, and their aspirations. The rather outré Donna Beatrice and the extraordinary art critic, Max Fustian, are brilliantly portrayed.
John Lafcadio was an artist. In his will he had held back twelve of his paintings, one to be unveiled each year following his death in an attempt to put one over his biggest rival and to preserve his memory. The story begins on the eve of the latest unveiling and Campion is invited by Lafcadio’s wife, Bella, to a private viewing and to see that preparations are in order. He detects a distinct undercurrent of feelings in the people he meets but thinks nothing of it.
During the party the lights go out and in the confusion, Tommy Dacre is stabbed to death with a pair of scissors which are one of the exhibits at the soiree. Dacre was an artist and had jilted Lafcadio’s granddaughter, Linda, by marrying an Italian model. Was jealousy the motive? What had the Potters to do with it all, untalented tenants at the house, a mystery compounded when Mrs Potter was later found dead, poisoned?
As Campion digs into what had happened, the plot thickens with fraud and manipulation of the art world and the counterfeiting of pictures at its heart. The culprit’s rapid descent into madness is rather dramatic and unbelievable, but their death brings a satisfying conclusion to the story. Campion’s approach to sleuthing does not rely on flashes of intuition or the grind of working through the suspects and their motives but is somewhere between the two. In what is a reverse of the norm in books of this genre, he identifies the culprit first, then establishes how and motivation later.
An enjoyable book with Allingham at her best.