I will admit I’ve never been Allingham’s biggest fan. I was underwhelmed by the likes of Flowers for the Judge (1936), More Work for the Under Taker (1948), Death of a Ghost (1934), The Mind Readers (1965), Traitor’s Purse (1941) and The China Governess (1963). Though I did enjoy Mr Campion and Others (1939), as well as The Tiger in the Smoke (1952). However after being given a couple of Allingham’s by a friend I decided to revisit Allingham’s work to see if I like it any better now.
This story, like some others in the series, is narrated by Albert Campion himself. The tale opens with a socially comic scene of Lugg reading out the death notices in the newspaper, in particular one about R. I. Peters (pun intended I guess). This name rings a bell for Campion who knew the deceased as a school bully. Yet the funeral is far from satisfying and instead has a gravely unsettling feeling upon Campion. 6 months later he is called back down to the area by the local Chief Constable, Colonel Leo Pursuivant, who is also Campion’s friend. For his own reasons he is very anxious about a newly discovered murder and Campion is stunned when he sees the victim – recognising his old school nemesis Peters, who seems to have been going around under a different name, Oswald Harris. Yet he has only been dead for 12 hours. So what was the funeral all about 6 months earlier? Leo is concerned about the murder due to where it took place, a local country house, which is now being run as a loosely governed business and it seems like Harris had been making himself pretty unpopular with the local inhabitants, including Leo, with his plans for redeveloping the area. Further befuddlement ensues with disappearing corpses, new corpses, cryptic anonymous letters, unhelpful school acquaintances and even personal jeopardy for Campion and Lugg.
I quite surprised myself, in that I enjoyed this more than I thought I would. The logistics of the murder are out of the ordinary and I would have said this book has a very good puzzle, but I don’t feel Allingham gives enough info to the reader to unravel the whole mystery themselves, though other readers may think contrary to this. After all she is very fair about one particular aspect of the murder method.
This is quite a short book by Allingham. It would be more accurate to call it a novella than a novel, clocking in at 115 pages in my edition. Yet I think I enjoy Allingham more in a shorter format and the pace was faster as a consequence, though I think some readers will find the ending a bit too fast due to the rushed thriller/action sequence. Drama and tension is well-maintained though and the chapters invariably close with some form of dramatic information, making it feel like a story which could have been serialised.
Although a short tale I think there are clever elements to it. In particular I noted how even in the 1930s Allingham was modernising and updating the country house mystery model. Her country house is not owned by a titled family, but is owned by a larger than life retired London actress who takes in paying guests and runs a bar. Country houses as business ventures are not something I feel we really see much of in mystery fiction until post WW2, so perhaps Allingham was a little ahead of the times? I also think she is plays around with character genre conventions and overall the story has a Bertie Wooster feel. This comes through especially strongly in Campion who soon becomes a put upon Wooster character type, forever being asked to do favours for people and being wrongly misunderstood as a consequence. The TV adaptation of this story, (which I saw quite a few years), delivers this aspect of the story very well indeed.
Can’t say I am fully comfortable with narrative style, the dialogue and narrative voice did sometimes jar with me, such as with lines like this: ‘these words are in the nature of a prophecy. The puff paste has a sausage inside it, after all.’ Equally Campion can drift into cliché at times: ‘I am fairly certain that I was pretty nearly brilliant in it in spite of the fact that I so nearly got myself and old Lugg killed that I hear a harp quintet whenever I consider it,’ and in this particular instance we can also hear a parodic echo of Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey in my opinion. However, it was quite interesting to see in a later fatality in the book, an echo to and a variation of one of Ethel Lina White’s short stories. Readers familiar with Allingham’s book will probably be able to guess which White story I am referring to.
Perhaps my rating is shade generous but it was nice to unexpectedly enjoy the book and it was mostly an entertaining read, with more than one trick up its sleeve.
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Bottle of Poison