Flowers For The Judge

A review of Flowers for the Judge by Margery Allingham

For readers of crime fiction from the so-called Golden Age, picking up a book by Margery Allingham can be both a revelation and a perplexing experience. In this, the seventh in her Albert Campion series and originally published in 1936, the quality of the writing is several notches above that of many of her contemporaries. From the opening sentences you know that this is a serious piece of fiction, even if in a genre that many literary critics would look down their noses at. Allingham has an excellent sense of place and time and is able to weave a picture in the reader’s mind of a rather fusty publishing firm, the internecine rivals between the members of the extended Barnabas family who run it, and the rabbit warren of a set of buildings in which both the firm and its principal owners live.

The principal plot line has all the hallmarks of a locked-room mystery. Paul Brande has gone missing for four days and is found in the firm’s strong room, having been asphyxiated to death by someone using a long rubber pipe affixed to a car which is garaged, conveniently, immediately behind it with a small metal grill connecting the two. The room is locked from the inside and the body is found immediately behind the door. It is thought he died not long after he went missing. However, Mike Wedgwood had gone to the strong room the night before the discovery of the corpse and had not noticed anything.

Wedgwood was infatuated by Brande’s neglected wife, Gina, and the two were heard quarrelling just before Mike’s disappearance. The car in question was his, he cannot provide a convincing alibi for his movements around the time of Brande’s murder and he admitted to warming up the car in the garage, albeit at a later hour than the putative time of the murder. That is enough for the police who promptly arrest him, and he is on trial for his life. A key second element of the book is a courtroom drama.

The family, and Gina in particular, are convinced of Mike’s innocence and hire Campion to represent their interests. So successful is he that the trial is halted in spectacular fashion. However, Paul Brande’s murder and its consequences is only the filling in a rather odd sandwich. Twenty years earlier Tom Barnabas left his home, walked down the street towards a tobacconist’s where he normally bought his daily paper and disappeared without trace, never to be seen again. The story goes that he was able to walk up the six-foot wall which bordered the street on his hands and jumped into a garden where snakes were kept before vanishing.

This story opens the book and is left hanging, bit its relevance to the Barnabas saga and the murder of Paul Brande becomes clear, after a fashion, as the book reaches its conclusion. It was a clever conceit on the part of Allingham, but I am not quite sure that she pulled it off seamlessly. There were a number of hastily patched joins and coincidences for me to make it a completely satisfying plot.   

Aside from the quality of the writing, one of the joys to be had from reading it was the reappearance of Magerfontein Lugg, Campion’s ex-con of a manservant who is trying to better himself. He is aghast when Campion asks him to use his old network of lags to pick up some valuable information. The pretensions of Lugg and the tensions they cause in the relations between Campion and Lugg are both finely drawn and funny and there is a delicious reversal of roles when Lugg is aghast that Campion’s willingness to take any role will reflect on the social standing.

The other character I liked was Ritchie Barnabas, whom the family treat as an odd ball but whom Campion recognises is both highly perceptive and someone who will be enormously valuable in solving the case. His portrayal is sensitively handled by Allingham.

And the title? The judge had a nosegay of flowers in front of him in court. As always with Allingham, there is much to admire and this is an enjoyable book.

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