The China Governess, Margery Allingham
Margery Allingham wrote the first of her novels with Albert Campion (as a secondary character) in 1929, and the last was finished by her husband after her death, in 1968. As you might expect, there is quite a variety in the stories over almost 40 years, and I am sure that readers have their favorites. I admit, I have been pleasantly surprised by how good her last books have been, both Tether's End from 1958, and this one, from 1962. That isn't always the case with long series of books, particularly those written over so many years.
The story opens with a strange and violent break-in at a new housing development in Turk Street, once called "the wickedest street in London" and still recovering from the devastation of the Blitz. No one can imagine why the elderly residents, with their quiet lodger, were targeted, but more questions arise when the lodger suddenly disappears. The story then shifts to Timothy Kinnit. The heir to a respected firm of antique dealers, he is taking his fiancée Julia Laurell down to the family's country home, to entrust her to his old nurse, Mrs. Broome. Julia's father, a wealthy industrialist, has put their engagement on hold. While everyone knows that Timothy was adopted by the Kinnits as a baby, it was always assumed that he was a son of the family, if an illegitimate one. But gossip about the engagement has made people question whether that is actually the case. It may be an impossible question to answer, because Timothy arrived at their home in a flood of refugees from the East End, in the first days of the war. In the confusion, no one remembered who brought him, and after the war, when the Kinnits tried to trace him, they found that bombs had destroyed most of the records in that area of London. The head of the family, Eustace Kinnit, simply adopted him, and he was accepted into the family. But his potential father-in-law wants to know more, and now Timothy himself does too.
The Kinnits have hired a detective firm, the same firm that could find nothing back in the 1940s. The Laurells on the other hand turn to Albert Campion. Julia returns to London, refusing to sit quietly in the country and wait, ignoring her father's orders that she have nothing to do with Timothy while the investigation proceeds. Insisting that it doesn't matter where Timothy came from, she loves him and will marry him just the same, she still tries to take a hand in the investigation. Timothy, however, is haunted by what might lie in his past, especially when the trail seems to lead back to the slums of Turk Street.
I really enjoyed this book, which combines a psychological mystery about identity and inheritance with more traditional elements. The story turns in surprising way, before Allingham ties it together so very neatly in the end. There is a death that the Kinnits insist is from natural causes, but despite their haste to get the body buried, rumors of Timothy's involvement start to circulate as well. The older Kinnits are particularly sensitive to rumors about murder, because in the 1840s the family's governess was accused of murdering her lover; though she was acquitted, she later committed suicide. Campion's friend Superintendent Charlie Luke is drawn into the investigations, and he and Timothy's old nurse Mrs. Broome are such vivid characters that they tend to take over the story whenever they appear. Campion, as he often does, fades into the background, while watching and listening to everything, picking up clues in the process that others overlook. I was very happy to meet another old friend, the Cockney ex-burglar Magersfontein Lugg, once Campion's manservant, who still keeps up the old flat in Bottle Street. I also enjoyed the historical aspect of the mystery, and I'm sure that Allingham drew on her own experiences dealing with war-time refugees, which she wrote about in The Oaken Heart.