Wednesday, April 17, 2019

NEW STUFF: The Return of Mr. Campion - Margery Allingham

A few years back someone invited the vintage crime bloggers on both sides of the Atlantic to contribute to a post on Writers Who We Think We’ll Never Read. These were the writers who for one reason or another we’ve managed to bypass or skip over or who we thought we would’ve read but still haven’t. My choice was Margery Allingham. Although I own about ten of her books as well as the biography of her life titled Ink in Her Blood I have always intended to read at least one of the Albert Campion novels (or even one without him like Black Plumes, also sitting forlornly my shelves). Yet as the years passed by I never picked up one, never read any of them. It took Agora Books' reprinting of one of the lesser Allingham story collections to get me to read of Albert Campion’s adventures in sleuthing.

As I was reading the handful of Campion stories in this unusual mix of detective, romance and supernatural fiction from Allingham’s fertile imagination it dawned on me, in one of life’s many supreme ironies, that I had in fact read one Albert Campion story before. The story was included in Ellery Queen Masterpieces of Mystery multi-volume library of short detective fiction that I had subscribed to when I was in high school. That Campion story was “"One Morning They'll Hang Him”, the final story in the volume subtitled The Supersleuths. I recall nothing of that story and perhaps its less than memorable content was the deciding factor in why I never bothered pursuing Albert into the pages of his full length adventures. Now that I have sampled a few more Campion stories I may be finally be tackling those novels.

The Return of Mr. Campion was originally published in 1989 in the US to capitalize on the popularity of Albert Campion who at the time was appearing on US TV via PBS on their Mystery! anthology series. This collection includes only four stories with Albert Campion but two of them are actually stories about a policeman who regales Albert with two tales of his early career as a Scotland Yard inspector. There are three essays including the introduction “Mystery Writer in the Box” which originally appeared in a different Allingham collection. Also in my advance reader copy is “Tall Story” pulled from The Allingham Casebook making this new edition not exactly a reprint of The Return of Mr. Campion, but an entirely new concoction using that original volume with some added material from other books.

Some of the Campion pieces are almost vignettes like "The Dog Day", the brief tale of the guests at a seaside resort whose vacations and interactions change drastically thanks to the appearance of a small dog in the dining hall one night. It is not really a tale of detection and certainly not one of crime, few of the stories involve any mystery at all in fact. There were only three stories that I really enjoyed and the others though well written, brimming with Allingham's sparkling humor and warmth oddly left me indifferent and wanting a bit more.

Of the three detective stories only two engaged me. One is a story of a con artist fortune teller that is enjoyable (The Black Tent") and yet all too predictable. Of all the stories in the collection this is only one in which Campion does some detective work. The other two that qualify as mystery stories feature Divisional Chief Inspector Charlie Luke as narrator and detective while Campion appears only as an audience member to the storytelling. “Tall Story” I enjoyed the most of these two for it offers the reader the challenge of an impossible problem, actually two – how did a criminal manage to get rid of a gun and his loot when cornered in a dead end alley. There are two clues that allow a reader adept at nonlinear thinking to arrive at the solution. But I don’t think it’s classifiable as a genuine fair play style detective story. Luke is a thoroughly entertaining character, a fine example of Allingham writing to entertain herself as well as her reader. In the other story he narrates (“The Curious Affair in Nut Row”) Allingham has fun describing how Luke imitates the people he met by doing vocal impressions and allowing us to “see” his facial expressions and grandiose gestures.

Of greatest interest to genuine Allingham fans will be the three essays about her life as a writer and her affection for her amateur detective. The introduction ("Mystery Writer in the Box”) is an eye-opening explanation of her start as a writer and her influences. We learn about her family who were all writers and of a family friend, the Irish writer George Richard Mant Hearne, whose one piece of advice stuck with Allingham all her life – to write for her own entertainment rather than for the demands of her editors and employers. “My Friend Mr. Campion” is another personal essay giving us insight into the origins and development of her detective. Despite the title of the third essay “What to Do with an Aging Detective” it has very little to do with Albert Campion and turns out to be an imagined conversation between Magersfontein Lugg and Allingham in which they discuss (among other things) her "being sweet" on Albert in his younger days and Lugg's new life in the employ of someone else.

Agora Books edition (2019)
“The Wisdom of Edras” turns out to be a ghost story. But the title is left unexplained forcing me to satisfy my unquenchable curiosity by an in-depth internet search. I learned that Edras is an alternate spelling for the prophet Ezra who is attributed as the author of an apocryphal book in the Old Testament. In one section of that book is a discussion of the soul and what happens to it after death which echoes a brief exchange between two characters in Allingham’s tale. A young man attempts to exorcise a house of female ghost by solving the mystery of her death but all his good intentions lead to disaster. It is an interesting idea for a ghost story recalling some of Margery Lawrence’s work in her volumes about Dr. Miles Pennoyer who in his occult investigations did his best to allow ghosts to rest in peace after uncovering the root cause of their haunting. However, an unsatisfying O. Henry irony in the final paragraphs coupled with the lack of an explanation for the title within the story itself bothered me.

Other non Campion stories include a featherweight tale of a woman who by chance encounters a former paramour while making a journey by train (“Once in a Lifetime”), a jazz age story about musicians (“Sweet & Low”), a holiday time vignette called “Happy Christmas” and "The Beauty King", another romantic story involving a cosmetician's business. Rounding out the volume are two tales with supernatural elements “The Kernel of Truth" (one of the three stories set at Christmas time) and "The Wind Glass".

The Return of Mr Campion is on sale now from Agora Books in a new edition available in both digital and paper formats.

No comments:

Post a Comment