Tag Archives: Margery Allingham

Dancers In Mourning

A review of Dancers in Mourning by Margery Allingham

There is no getting away from the fact that in terms of style and literary quality Margery Allingham is a cut above many of her contemporaries who wrote detective fiction. This book, the seventh in her Albert Campion series and originally published in 1937 which also goes under the title of Who Killed Chloe?, has all the hallmarks of Allingham at her best, vivid writing, splendid characterisation, and an intriguing puzzle, but I must confess, I did find it hard going at times.

Perhaps part of my problem is that I did not really engage with the puzzle to begin with. A musical star, dancer Jimmy Sutane, is unsettled by a series of practical jokes which are played on him, the strangest being when a large party of the bigwigs of the County set arrived en masse at his country home, having apparently received an invitation to attend an afternoon soiree. There was barely enough china to go round. By this time Campion has been invited by Sutane to get to the bottom of these practical jokes.

Those impatient for a body have to wait some time until Chloe Pye, a dancer who has been recently hired by Sutane and who has invited herself down for the weekend, is seemingly run over by Sutane after she leant over a bridge and toppled over. Even the least astute of readers will realise that there is something fishy about the accident.

The police investigate and Campion is placed in somewhat of a dilemma. He has been engaged by Sutane and prima facie Sutane looks to be in the frame, especially as investigations unearth details of Chloe’s shady past and her previous involvements with the star dancer. Is he going to be instrumental in sending his friend to the gallows? To further complicate matters Campion has taken more than a shine for Sutane’s wife, a surprise for some readers who have followed the series who have always considered Albert to have a rather ambivalent attitude to the fairer sex.

Worse still Campion finds himself withholding evidence and providing misleading information. The situation becomes so intolerable that he decides to withdraw back to London and let events unfold for themselves. What rocks him out of his languor and brings him back into the action is a bomb blast at a quiet suburban in which Sutane’s understudy, amongst others, is killed. The investigations lead to the discovery of what we would now call an international terrorist connection, blackmail, and to a previous marriage.    

Reluctantly drawn back into the fray Campion is convinced of the identity of the culprit which makes him even more uncomfortable about the situation he finds himself in. However, a song and his recollection of the circumstances of Pye’s death lead him to realise that he had misinterpreted the clues and that he had overlooked the real culprit. As events quickly unfold, we see that Campion, while providing much valuable assistance to the police, is capable of making a monumental mistake.

In this novel Campion is a much more vulnerable, more human individual, less certain of his intuitions and in his actions, an interesting other side to him. Allingham is fascinated to explore and describe her hero’s inner conflicts, which while making him a more rounded figure does slow the pace of the narrative down. It is as though she is fighting against the constraints of the genre.

One of the undoubted highlights of the book is the appearance of Magersfontein Lugg, Campion’s man, who is lent out to the Sutanes. His friendship with their young daughter provides some charming and comic moments, especially when he teaches her some of the tools of his former trade such as lock picking and the three-card trick.    

An intriguing point is that a pub that features in the book is called the Spiked Lion, perhaps a reference to Brian Flynn’s book of the same name, published four years earlier.

There is much to admire about the book, but I do not think it is one of her best.

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.

The Tiger In The Smoke

A review of The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham

If, like me, you have been puzzled about what all the fuss was about Margery Allingham and why she is considered worthy of a place in the higher echelons of the Golden Age detective writers, then this is the book that settles any doubts once and for all. If you have never read any of her books, this, the fourteenth in her Albert Campion series and originally published in 1952, is the one to start with. It is a highly entertaining and impressive book which works on several levels.

It is less of a whodunit – there is no doubting who the murderer is – and more of a whydunit, less of a conventional detective story and more of a thriller. It has a profound sense of time and place, most of the action taking place in post Second World War London (the Smoke) where the smog is thick and law-abiding citizens can barely see a foot in front of them but ideal conditions for a miscreant, particularly one handy with a knife. Throughout the book runs a rich vein of terror and foreboding, menace and violence.

The most interesting character in the book is the self-styled Jack Havoc who lives up to his name by prowling the metropolis like a tiger, stopping at nothing, not even murder, to get his hands on any information that will inch him nearer to getting his hands on the treasure he learnt about whilst on a secret operation to the Normandy coast in the war. He is a psychopath and Allingham spends time in developing his character and allowing the reader to understand his blinkered ambition to get hold of what he believes will seal his fortune.

Havoc believes that he operates according to the Science of Luck, beliefs which, surprisingly, share some surprising similarities to Canon Avril’s own philosophy of life. While Havoc is beyond hope of redemption, Avril believes that everyone is worthy of salvation. As they discuss their philosophies in a terrific set piece towards the end of the book, it is clear that there are many similarities between the philosophies espoused by the rather unworldly Canon and Havoc, whom the priest recognises as someone who lived in the neighbourhood as a boy. Their debate leads to the story’s denouement, the canon inadvertently giving away the location of the treasure but unnerving Havoc sufficiently to miss his strike and only wound the priest.

The other intriguing aspect of the book is the part played by the quaintly named Tiddy Doll and his rag bag group of old servicemen who are waiting for the return of the Gaffer. They tramp up and down the streets, making a discordant noise with their instruments, demanding monies, and heralding the sense that something sinister is about to happen. When Havoc does appear, in rather dramatic circumstances, Doll realises that Havoc is more in need of their help than vice versa.

The trio tasked with resolving a case involving several murders, kidnap, and the hunt for treasure, are Campion, who adopts a customary low profile in the case, Inspector Luke, and Geoffrey Levitt, whose engagement to Meg Elginbrodde, throws him headlong into danger. Why is someone trying to convince Meg that her former husband, presumed missing in action during the War, is still alive? What is the treasure kept safe in his family’s deserted house on the Normandy coast? Loan sharks, blackmail, deliberate misidentifications, family secrets, the laying of ghosts all feature prominently in the story.

The thrilling denouement pits Havoc against Meg on the Normandy coast. The treasure proves to be monetarily worthless, albeit aesthetically beautiful, and a broken Havoc makes his peace in his own way.

Death Of A Ghost

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.

The Crime At Black Dudley

A review of The Crime at Black Dudley by Margery Allingham

This was Margery Allingham’s first book to feature her amateur sleuth, Albert Campion, published in 1929. Also known as The Black Dudley Murder in the United States, it is a rather odd book, at least structurally.

It begins as a conventional country house murder mystery, set at the ugly and sinister Black Dudley. At the invitation of Wyatt Petrie a group of disparate guests have assembled for the weekend to amuse his invalid uncle, Colonel Coombe. There is a Cluedo-like theme running through this book. Among the guests are a distinguished Scotland Yard pathologist, George Abbershaw, his love interest, Margaret Oliphant, a rather keen, gung-ho rugger blue, a young doctor, a couple of sinister guests invited specifically by Coombe, and a silly ass by the name of Campion. In our first encounter with Campion, he even outdoes Wimsey in his asinine behaviour.

The guests are persuaded to replicate the old Black Dudley Knife ritual, a glorified game of pass the parcel, albeit with a knife and with the lights out. Inevitably, there is a tragedy, Combe is found slumped in his wheelchair and taken up to his room and pronounced dead. The doctors are prevailed upon to put the cause of death as a heart attack, even though Abbershaw is convinced that Coombe had been stabbed by the Black Dudley knife. The body is whisked away for a quick cremation.

While the lights are out, Campion has relieved Coombe of a vital set of documents and as he hopes to slip away is detained by Abbershaw. Abbershaw then finds the papers and destroys them, not realising their import. Coombe’s two sinister friends are anxious to get their hands on the papers and much of the book concerns itself with their detention of the guests, the search for the documents, and the guests’ attempts to escape. Campion, despite his inanities, proves invaluable.

As you might expect in Allingham’s world, Black Dudley is the focal point of two gangs of international criminals who are anxious to get their hands on Coombe’s plans for an audacious and major bullion raid. Campion, it emerges, is in the employ of the other gang and has accepted a mission which was larger than he anticipated.

The murder of Coombe and the identity of the murderer are two rather thin wafers placed around the meatier shenanigans involving the battle between the criminals and the rest of the guests. Once that is resolved, Campion leaves the narrative and has no hand in unmasking the culprit. This is left to Abbershaw and, indeed, the whole book is written from the perspective of the worthy medic.

It is quite apparent that the demise of Coombe is as much as a surprise to the criminal gang as most of the guests and the suspicions fall on one of guests, but who and why? The who is fairly self-evident. The why is an interesting form of retribution and natural justice, which even the most diligent reader would not have the clues to realise. Given the time spent on the enforced captivity of the guests and the attempts to escape, the murder aspects fell somewhat rushed and the resolution unsatisfactory.

In summary, it seemed to me neither one thing nor the other, neither an amusing country house thriller-cum-caper à la Buchan or Wallace nor a murder story. The attempts to blend the two did not sit well with me, even though it was an entertaining enough read. Had I read this as my introduction to Campion, I might not have read many more of the series. What saves it is that it is easy to read and imbued with a sense of humour.

Campion comes across as a man of mystery, a complex blend of inanity and intelligence, a man for hire. Allingham seems to be road-testing him, not quite sure in which direction to take him. Of course, we know but her contemporary readers would not, making it a rather dangerous strategy.