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.