Sweet Danger by Margery Allingham – Danger, adventure and Campion

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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…

The White Cottage Mystery by Margery Allingham

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This book is the first story produced by Allingham featuring a detective, W.T. Challoner. It was actually compiled from a series which first appeared in the Daily Express in 1927. This is therefore not Allingham’s famous “sort of a detective”, Campion, but an older man, whose vast understanding of human nature means he can solve crimes that puzzle others.

The original format of the serial means that the chapters of this novel are very short, and the murder mystery is not complex as each chapter was not meant to be read closely following on from the previous one. Despite this, the crime is still singular in its gory detail and domestic setting. The suspects are more or less ticked off, before a shift of scene means that foreign travel and a whole new set of suspicious circumstances must be delved into by the two sleuths. The fortuitous arrival of Challoner’s son Jerry at the murder scene means that Challoner has a Watson to explain his thinking to, as well as a younger man to do some of the running around. Jerry’s solving of the crime is compromised by his affection for a suspect (as announced on the back cover of this edition), but does give rise to an interesting question unusual in this sort of investigation novel, as to whether the crime can be justified when it soon emerges that the victim is a very nasty person. This level of complexity in an otherwise standard murder mystery makes for a more interesting read than some classic reprints of the era. Allingham’s later development of Campion and his associates is not the classic murder mystery duly solved and murderer punished, if only because Campion is only a well -connected, amateur detective.  Her best known novel, Tiger in the Smoke, questions the nature of an evil person, and I think that this thinking is beginning to be seen in this early novel.

Overall, this is not a complex subtle novel in many ways, but a satisfying short read. The characters are interesting and well developed in a very clever, brief manner. This is not a great murder mystery, but as an early example of Allingham’s writings I found it very interesting and a sign of great things to come.

This is a very brief review as I confront the problem of how to write about a murder mystery without introducing the dreaded spoilers! This may be a book for those who want the complete set of Allingham’s mystery books, and Bloomsbury have filled a gap as well as providing a book for those who want a fairly brief read without discovering the delights of the rather more complex Campion, well brought to life by Peter Davison in the tv series of 1989…

Campion: The Complete Collection [1989] [DVD]

 

 

The Oaken Heart by Margery Allingham

If you have read previous posts on this blog, you will have noticed that I have an interest in life in Britain during the Second World War. I have picked out some of the Persephone titles which reflect the experiences of women such as Winifred Peck, as well as Furrowed Middlebrow’s offerings of fascinating memoirs like Chelsea Concerto. I have long enjoyed the books of Margery Allingham as her unusual hero Albert Campion solves mysteries in a wartime setting as well as introducing the foggy “Tiger in the Smoke”. So I was interested to track down a copy of The Oaken Heart  being  “The story of an English Village at War”. It is available to order from bookshops in a lovely edition by Golden Duck publishers, which look to be a small Essex business.

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This is an unusual book in two ways; it is an unusual book for Allingham, who is known mainly for her murder mystery books, notably featuring Albert Campion. It is also unusual as a book in that it is almost a real time record of one village’s experiences of daily life in the Second World War. There is one suggestion that it was originally written for the American market, not just to earn its author money, but also to help with the effort to persuade the U.S. public to join in the war effort. The narrative ends in February 1941 when it was far from clear how the war would progress yet alone end, and there is a sense of controlled fear that everything and everyone is still very unsafe. Invasion of this country by enemy forces was still, after all, a very real possibility.

The author was living in a large house in an Essex village in 1939, and the stories and experiences reflect the lives of those around her as war looked increasingly likely, people were evacuated to the village from London, the outbreak of war and the departure of men and women into the Forces. There is a small railway, a school, shops and all the small businesses and concerns linked to a mid century British village. There are characters who behave well in adversity, and the general tone is of resigned acceptance of the imminence of destruction, whether personal, local or national. Thus there is the urgency of gas mask distribution, the preparations for evacuated schoolchildren who turn out to be mothers and children, and the reality of bombs falling in the area if not immediately on the village itself. There are the daily practical concerns of a large influx of people who need not only housing but also feeding and clothing. Book manuscripts must be hidden in biscuit tins, windows taped up and a place for London couples to argue provided. A straw shelter from bombs is built but is most used for cattle over winter. Various elderly people adopt a fatalism which means that they do not seek shelter; and the dropping of flares and incendiaries provide firework type entertainment.

This book is an account of life by a woman dealing with unprecedented experiences; her daily life and the departure of her husband and others to fight. It is reality finely drawn, as the foreword says “And The Oaken Heart    reflects her truthfulness on every page”. It is not a smooth, highly planned narrative, yet it is not a diary in the sense that it contains reflections on this war and those whose lives are being threatened and transformed by its progress. There are funny tales of the determination of one man to build a glass topped extension, but not to hit the last nail in as that is when it is bound to be destroyed. This is no bland ‘Britain can take it’ propaganda as it is too honest; it reflects the real fear as well as the determination to survive and flourish.

It perhaps feels wrong to say I enjoyed this book as there is an element of suffering and fear present. It is an eminently readable narrative, fascinating in its eye for detail and its honesty, when much of the writing about this time almost romanticises the romance of peril. This is the story of a woman who has to visit a bomb scarred London and misses buildings no longer standing, and also who confronts the potential ending of everything. It is also well written and personal, as she recalls and records the strange events and personalities that make up the village around her. The Golden Duck edition that Blackwells tracked down for me contains a short diary and other information, pictures and photographs which all add to the reality. If you have an interest in the Home Front in Britain I would definitely recommend this book.