Monday, April 2, 2012

Four cold cases

Tether's End, Margery Allingham

I was introduced to Margery Allingham through the 1989-1990 TV series "Campion," with Peter Davison as Albert Campion.  I went  looking for the books on which it was based, and as often happens, I enjoyed the books even more than the TV episodes, another proof of the Purist Principle ("The book is always better").   I collected all of the 18 Campion mysteries over the years, but I've never gotten around to reading the last three, until now.

Albert Campion first appeared in The Black Dudley Mystery in 1929, where he wasn't even the main character.  Like Peter Wimsey, he evolved into a complex character over the course of the series, the last of which was published in 1965.  At least in the early books, he is a Bertie Woosterish type, sporting huge horn-rimmed glasses that hide much of his face.  When he isn't piffling or pulling stunts, he can fade into the background (he is often described as unobtrusive), and people tend to overlook him, often to their cost.  He is the scion of  an aristocratic family that has apparently washed their hands of him, except for a sister who later joins him in exile.  An amateur detective with a strong streak of insatiable curiosity, he sometimes has a crisis of conscience about his work or finds his own "meddling" intolerable.  He has several Charles Parker figures, police officers with whom he works closely, who become friends.  His manservant, the Cockney ex-burglar Magersfontein Lugg, is the polar opposite of the very Jeevish Bunter, but his rough manner hides a real affection and concern for his employer, and his arcane skills come in very handy at times.

There is a such a variety in the Campion stories.  Some of the early books, like The Gyrth Chalice Mystery (Look to the Lady) and The Fear Sign (Sweet Danger) are high-flying adventure stories, with an element of the supernatural.  Some center on the self-contained world of art or the theater, publishing or fashion.  Two are set during the Second World War.  There are several that seem almost somber, and some I find just confusing, like More Work for the Undertaker or The Beckoning LadyThe Tiger in the Smoke, published in 1952, is generally considered Allingham's best and one of the best mysteries of the 20th century.  It is a psychological thriller centered around the hunt for a killer, the "tiger" of the title.

Tether's End was published in 1958, and it too is a psychological thriller.  The first chapter of the book tells a strange little story of a country bus, with two elderly people seated inside, parked in a London alley one rainy night.  The driver leaves to make a phone call about money he owes and an appointment to repay it.  He leaves for that appointment carrying a gun.  Then the story moves ahead eight months and turns to Albert Campion and his friend Superintendent Charlie Luke.  Luke is trying to tie together four unsolved murders in an area of west London, one of which involved a country bus parked in an alley.  He believes the four cases are connected, though the little physical evidence they have from the crime scenes tells them almost nothing.  His superiors think he is wasting his time, but from the first chapter, we know that he is right.  Throughout the story, we know more than the characters.  The story moves back and forth between Campion and Luke's investigation, the driver of the bus, and Polly Tassie, his close friend and surrogate mother.  Polly's young niece Annabelle, who has just arrived for a visit, is quickly drawn into the story, as is her friend Richard.  They each go their own way, intent on their own purposes, but we can see the connections between them and watch the elements of case come together.  It gave me the feeling of omniscience that authors must often have.  In contrast, the characters don't just lack crucial pieces of information; they are also blinded, by overconfidence, and most dangerously, by love.  The British title, Hide My Eyes, is very much to the point.

This is a very tightly-plotted story.  After the first chapter, all the action takes place over the course of a single day and night.  And while it is brought to a neat resolution, we don't see how the resolution affects all of the characters.  I wish Allingham had told us something of their fates.  But that is a small point in an excellent book, one of her best I think, and now I'm moving the last two books up the TBR pile.


  1. What a wonderful read! I tried Allingham once when I was a teen and I remember thinking it was okay, but I never tried another. If I ever regain my taste for mysteries I will try her again.

  2. I've been enjoying getting reacquainted with Campion over the last several months. I've only read the first 5, so I'm still in the adventure novel phase, but I'm excited to here about the variety in store. I read a couple years ago (Traitor's Purse and Tiger in the Smoke, I think), but I have virtually no memory of them.

  3. Anbolyn, I have a friend who doesn't read mysteries. It took me a while to accept that I wasn't going to be able to convince her to, no matter how wonderful I think they are. And I do think Allingham is wonderful, most of the time.

    Teresa, I've been thinking of re-reading some of the early ones - particularly Police at the Funeral, which just left me completely confused. I remember your review of it and the other Campions, which is probably what nudged me to pick up this one.

  4. Thank you for reminding me how good Margery Allingham is. I discovered the books through the television adaptations too, and I really must reread them in order one day.

  5. Jane, I've read them as I came across them, so very much out of order. I only read The Black Dudley Mystery in the last couple of years. It would be really interesting to read them in order.

  6. Like you, I've been reading them out of order. I don't know if I would have been too keen on reading them if Campion had stayed as he was in the beginning, he has grown on me as he aged. Allingham was supposed to have written Campion as a parody of Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey.

  7. I was just reading that somewhere, that he started out as a parody of Peter Wimsey. And like Peter, he developed a lot of depth and character as the series went on - he just had a lot more books to do it in!


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!