The Case of the Late Pig by Margery Allingham – A Village Mystery
This 1937 murder mystery, reprinted by Vintage, is a fine example of Allingham’s writing. The introduction to the omnibus edition, in which this book appears, is written by Jane Stevenson, as even as a fan of Allingham, she writes that the author is not so good at plots. Stevens points out that her skill is depicting characters, of all types, classes and origins. In this book she uses Campion, her fallible hero, to observe, comment and in his own time, act. Suspects, bodies and bystanders all mingle into one as he observes the way a small community reacts to sudden death. Each character, even the seemingly minor ones, has a worked out story, characteristics and motives, far more sophisticated than that of many of her contemporary writers. This being a Campion novel, there is a lot of self- depreciating humour on his part, but underneath, as always, he develops a plan to not only save the day, and also explain it as well.
A frequently used method of attracting attention is to place an announcement in a paper, and on this occasion it is the announcement of the funeral of an old school enemy of Campion’s. Harris, or the “Pig” as he was known owing to his distasteful range of bullying ticks and appearance is apparently no more. At the funeral there is a slight hint that he has survived, but Campion is distracted by another school friend known for his totally forgettable appearance. It is only a few months later that he is summoned to sort out a seemingly impossible crime which proving a significant embarrassment to his old friend Leo. A man fitting Harris’ description, his brother, has been squashed by a falling stone urn, when apparently no one was nearby to push it off the ledge. Leo assembles a collection of people that evening, including Janet who Campion will later go on to describe as “not clever”. There is a suspicious Vicar, who later turns up in a state to make Campion reasonably expect he is involved in the inconvenient disappearance of a dead body. Other newcomers to the village come under suspicion, especially when one offers to sell information. Dangerous situations emerge as more than one person is threatened, the mystery deepens, and even the infamous Lugg is in danger.
Allingham is not always regarded favourably in comparison with her contemporaries, and has not benefitted from as many screen adaptations. Nevertheless, she has a masterly way with dialogue and the creation of characters who are never sketched in, but proper people, whatever class or social setting they feature within in the novels. This book is not as positive about women as some; the female characters vary but are not seen as active in the resolution as in “Sweet Danger” for example, though each woman has her own backstory in this narrative. Campion is fallible and bewildered at times, thrown off balance by memories of schooldays. The inimitable Lugg makes helpful suggestions as always, and is largely ignored by his sort of master. Sometimes it seems as though Campion solves mysteries despite Lugg rather than with his support, but the bond stays strong in this novel. Overall this is perhaps not the strongest Allingham novel, but an enthusiastic story, full of assumptions overturned and red herrings exposed.
We are still sorting out here after our Norfolk trip. One discovery was that Blickling Hall, a sizable National Trust Property, has the largest secondhand book shop of any NT property in the country. Moreover, it is incredibly well organised and mainly accessible! This discovery made for a quiet hour and a half, and rather too much money spent. A fellow Angela Thirkell fan I met found four first editions of the books. (I bought three…) I also picked up a rare Delafield, but on finding the price was £95 put it down again! If you find yourself in the area it is well worth a look for older books which can be hard to find; the average price is nearer £2.50 each!