A book which sits squarely in the Golden Age, (1933) this could have been a straight mystery. There are times when it could also have descended into farce, or been almost a famous five adventure, but to be those things it would have had to be written by somebody other than Margery Allingham. She successfully subverts so much in this tale, by including supernatural elements, international politics, misdirection and most of all the weird and wonderful Campion himself, that it becomes a very funny yet slightly disturbing read. There is so much in this book that could go wrong, yet Allingham manages to hold it together admirably as a disposessed family fights, sometimes literally, to survive and find their inheritance, which has become a political mission for Campion and his group of trusted followers. When even the sternest fighters have to be restrained, and several near misses are recorded, life gets very complicated.
The book opens with a wealthy young man discovering, via an excitable hotel manager, that his friends have got an interesting mission in hand. While Albert Campion is pretending, (or is he?) to be royalty, Lugg his manservant is, as ever, predicting doom. As they proceed in a disorderly fashion to West Suffolk, they discover a seemingly delightful village with a mill run by the eccentric members of a family eager to seek their help with a series of puzzling discoveries. Amanda is a determined girl who seeks to maintain the family’s survival, while her somewhat colourless older sister and intense brother Hal always seem to miss the point. Miss Huntingforest, or Aunt Hatt, is an older lady with a fierce streak, which is fortunate in the trying circumstances she finds herself in on a regular basis. There is an elderly doctor who has a most strange agenda and the most fragrant garden in crime literature, who does more than patch up one of the adventurers, Guffy. All this pales into insignificance compared by the very real danger posed by the extremely powerful crime lord who will stop at literally nothing to achieve his aims. As ever, Campion takes many risks, faces many dangers, and does it all with the self – depreciating humour which characterises these books. His demeanour as the amiable twit could be wearing in other hands, but combined with a swift grasp of any situation, witty dialogue and extreme bravery, let alone his stern relationship with the memorable Lugg make up for any deficiencies. He is has certain Bertie Wooster tendencies, and is a fellow not unlike Sayers’ hero, Lord Peter, but combines all the best of both men with a certain air of mystery as to his background. Amanda Fitton is no Harriet, but shares the same desperate courage as Campion and is a character to keep in mind.
Allingham’s autobiographical writings in the “Oaken Heart” and elsewhere shows that she regarded her writing as her job, raising money for her country life, but this book shows her really stretching herself to have a good time with her creation, Campion, and throwing everything into the mix. It does not depend on the clever writing of some of her later novels, as amnesia and wartime dangers dominate, and the superb “Tiger in the Smoke” which plunges into the real depth of good and evil. This is a sunny novel which entertains as well as having a dark side. My favourite section is a visit to a museum described as “dull” by its curator, as uncertain ‘church representatives’ are met with a real surprise. As no one is sure exactly what is going on, this is an exciting adventure and well worth discovering, or rediscovering.
I wrote this review as I have had quite a busy weekend, with singing at a concert, a wedding, a blessing, and running a successful bookstall at an Open Gardens. We opened the Vicarage garden which is definitely a work in progress, owing to its sheer size and challenging areas. Thanks to help from other people and the dubious benefits of bark on matting it was presentable, though I spent time shuttling between a boiling hot tent and a magnolia tree. I sold lots of books! Northernvicar is also basking in his success at raising over £1,000 for the British Heart Foundation by walking Snowdon, so well done to him. I would prefer a sponsored book read myself…