The sixth of Margery Allingham’s novels about detective and adventurer Albert Campion, Death of a Ghost is the closest so far to what I think of as a traditional mystery novel. It begins with a gathering of potential suspects and victims. While the murder does not technically take place in a locked room, it does occur at a time and place that clearly marks a finite group of people as suspects. Campion and his friend Stanislaus Oates of Scotland Yard proceed to interview witnesses and collect clues and suspicions. It deviates from what one might consider the usual “whodunit” formula in that the identity of the murderer appears to be clear well before the end of the book, but Campion and Oates continue their work with an eye to building a case or preventing another murder. And of course, they—and the reader—cannot be certain that they’ve correctly identified the killer until the work is complete.
The murder takes place at the unveiling of a posthumous painting by the artist John Lafcadio. Before his death, Lafcadio had arranged that, beginning 10 years after his demise, one of his previously unknown paintings would be brought before the public each year. Ten paintings had been placed in storage for that purpose, and every year, a group of notable society members would gather for a party to celebrate the debut of the “new” work. It’s at the eighth of these events that the murder occurs.
The suspects come primarily from Lafcadio own household and close associates. Campion, who as a friend of Belle Lafcadio, the late artist’s wife, visits the household before the fateful unveiling, is able to draw on what he observed of the dynamics within the household to build his case. It’s a good thing, too, because the artists and former models who comprise this makeshift family are not necessarily reliable witnesses.
I’ve read some criticisms of Allingham’s work for being misogynistic (primarily, perhaps entirely, because of a passage in A Fashion in Shrouds), and I did catch a whiff of it here in the depictions of the women models who comprise the Lafcadio household. They’re all depicted as rather dim in one way or another, and the aging ones border on the grotesque—as if all their value has dissipated now that they’re old and not so beautiful. Allingham doesn’t hammer on this too hard—I might not have noticed it had I not seen others express this concern about A Fashion in Shrouds. And not all the women in the book are depicted in such a way, just the models. I was sorry to see it, although it didn’t detract from the book’s other pleasures.
Campion himself is one of the great pleasures of the series, and this book shows him in a different light. In the earlier books, Campion puts on a mask of affable idiocy. This one shows him being more serious; the madcap adventurer whose goofiness puts his adversaries at ease is hardly visible at all. In fact, the killer very nearly gets the better of Campion because Campion underestimates the killer’s deviousness. The sequence when the killer gets the upper hand is one of the best climaxes of Allingham’s books I’ve read so far.
The emphasis on Campion’s more serious side made this book a little less fun than its predecessors. I missed Campion’s banter with his valet Lugg, and I was hoping for another appearance of Amanda from Sweet Danger, but no luck. Still, it’s nice to see another side to Campion. I understand that he grows considerably over the course of the series, and although I hope he doesn’t lose his sense of fun completely, there are situations where his sillier persona just wouldn’t work. I’m looking forward to seeing what sides of Campion are yet to be revealed!