I know from my background reading that three writers are known as giants, or queens of the Golden Age of British Crime fiction. I have read or am reading books by Agatha Christie (the Miss Marple books) and by Dorothy Sayers ( The Lord Peter Wimsey books), so when I came across the first book in Margery Allingham's Albert Campion series, I thought I just had to give it a go for completeness. I have noticed that all three authors have tried to have their brilliant sleuths very much underestimated. Miss Marple, sitting quietly in a corner, is often overlooked and underestimated. This doesn't annoy me. But both Sayers and Allingingham try to portray their sleuths as foolish, gibberish speaking idiots. This works within the plot, but is very trying for the reader - me. I thought Lord Peter Wimsey was bad enough, but Albert Campion seems even worse. Oh woe is me ! Wimsey appeared first - Campion seems a copy.
Margery Allingham was born in 1904 in Ealing, London. Both her mother and father were writers. Soon after Margery's birth, the family moved to a small village in Essex near Colchester. Margery attended a local school, and then the Perse School for Girls in Cambridge. Margery was always writing, and, at the age of eight, got her first fee for a story published in her aunt's magazine. Margery returned to London in 1920, where she studied drama and speech training - and this cured her of a childhood stammer. She met her future husband Philip Youngman Carter, and they later married in 1927. Much, much later she and Carter wrote a Campion book together, and Carter later wrote two more Campions under his own name, and another with a different co-author.
Margery's first book was published in 1923 when she was 19, and she continued to write books, and plays but without commercial success. Her breakthrough came in 1929 with the publication of "The Crime at Black Dudley" which introduced her readers to Albert Campion, then thought to be a parody of Dorothy Sayer's Lord Peter Wimsey. Campion was especially well received in America and Allingham was encouraged to write more stories With practice her writing skills improved. Campion featured in over 17 novels and lots of short stories - spanning a writing career of about 40 years. "The Mind Readers" was published in 1965, a year before the author's death. "The Return of Mr Campion" is a collection of short stories published as late as 1989. Campion is a strange character, with reputed hints that he is of a family in the line of succession to the throne ! Sometimes he is a detective, sometimes an adventurer with connections to the shady world of criminality. His servant Lugg is an ex burglar. Eventualy he works closely with the police and MI6 counter intelligence. He falls in love, gets married, and has a child - in short, the novels and the writer change, develop and adapt as time goes by.
Margery Allingham suffered from breast cancer, and died in Colchester hospital in 1966. Her final Campion "Cargo of Eagles" was completed by her husband at her request and published in 1968.
I read this book in September, 2019.
This is the first book in the Albert Campion series, and is a novel introduction in that Campion is not the main detective - that is Dr George Abbershaw, a distinguished man of science whose book of pathology is required reading. Black Dudley is a huge country mansion that has seen better days. It has lots and lots of rooms, stairways, and secret passages. The head of the house is Colonel Gordon Coombe, but the real owner is his nephew Wyatt Petrie. The colonel regularly asks Petrie to invite lots of his young friends up to Suffolk for a weekend house party at Black Dudley. Wyatt asks his friend Abbershaw to come along. George Abbershaw is smitten with a young lady by the name of Margaret (Meggie) Oliphant, and agrees to come if Wyatt also arranges for Meggie to be there - which he does. Shy George can now socialise with Meggie. All sorts of perils befall the couple that weekend, George displays hitherto hidden bravery, and so George and Meggie eventually fall in love, get engaged and married.
It's a very complicated, very far fetched tale. As a party game, all the lights are extinguished (no electric at Black Dudley) and an ancient dagger, steeped in family history and mystery is passed between the participants. Meggie gets tapped on the shoulder in the dark by someone, and handed the dagger, but it's blade is covered in blood. The dagger is then snatched back and disappears. Worse, everyone is told that Colonel Coombe has suffered a heart attack (and died). Ominously he has to be cremated right away. In fact he was stabbed. So at one level we have a murder mystery in a lonely country mansion - familiar territory. Who did the evil deed ? Was it one of the two wicked looking personal friends keeping the Colonel company - Gideon and the German Benjamin Dawlish. Or was it one of Wyatt Petrie's young friends. Within this party is the mysterious Albert Campion - no one is sure who invited him. He seems a lunatic doing conjuring tricks and speaking incessant gibberish. Is he the murderer ?
The story now gets very complicated in a tale involving two competing criminal gangs who buy well thought out crime plans from a brilliant master criminal - none other than Colonel Coombe ! His latest plan has gone missing and Dawlish wants it back. Dawlish is the notorious head of a European crime syndicate, and he now has everyone held captive. All are to be tortured including Meggie - and George must save her. Surprisingly, it's the lunatic Campion who has the skill to save the day. So lots of climaxes, escapes, recaptures, and adventures. Somehow or other Abbershaw has worked out just what is going on, and keeps us informed within the complicated tale. At the very end Abbershaw gives Campion a lift back to London. "Just who are you ?" asks Abbershaw. Campion whispers his true very distinguished family name in Abbershaw's ear, but sadly this is not shared with us.
I thought it competently written, but really a load of unbelievable nonsense, and Campion a definite and annoying parody of Lord Peter Wimsey. But I've been told that the author, the character and the series improve with time, so I'll not abandon Margery Allinghm / Albert Campion yet.
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