I’ve been sick with a cold for the last few weeks, which means I’m in the right mood for some good crime fiction. (Is it weird that I use crime fiction for comfort reading?) And these days, when I want crime fiction, I’ve been turning to Margery Allingham, whose Albert Campion novels I’m attempting to read in order.
No longer the madcap adventurer of the earlier books, this Campion is a war-weary agent, back in London on leave from a secret mission in the last days of the war and wanting nothing more than to catch a train and get home. But when he stops off in his Bottle Street residence for a quick bath, he finds a body in his bed, brought there by his manservant Lugg and two rather striking women. The whole business is more than Campion wants to deal with, so he leaves Lugg to handle it and heads off to Euston Station to catch his train. Unfortunately, a taxicab abduction keeps him from the station, and when the police get wind of the situation, they forbid him from leaving London. So he’s left solving a mystery in spite of himself.
Campion’s doesn’t do a lot of actual detection in this book—the mystery seems to come to him. He gets invited to the right places and talks to the right people and is naturally curious enough to ask the right questions. The mystery involves one of another of the tight circles of eccentrics that tend to populate Allingham’s novels. In this case, it’s the household of the aristocratic Johnny Carados. The dead woman was initially found in Carados’s house, and his mother and fiancée are the striking women Campion found in his own home with Lugg.
As is usual with Allingham’s novels, the mystery, while sufficiently engaging on its own, is also a vehicle to consider other, larger themes, such as the way war affects a city and its people. Campion has been away from London for three years, and the war-time city is a strange place, populated with familiar characters in new circumstances. People are finding new ways to survive and sometimes to make a profit in this changed environment. And people who appear self-absorbed show themselves to have hidden levels of consideration and care for others. All of this is deep in the background—the focus in on the mystery—but these ideas pop up often enough to give the book a feeling of seriousness, especially given that it was published in 1945, when people were in the midst of grappling with these changes.
This is a solid mystery, well-written and enjoyable. The ending is probably the most striking element of the book, but I won’t spoil that for you.