Margery Allingham is one of those mystery writers you’re likely to see listed with Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers as one of the great writers of the Golden Age of British mysteries. I discovered Allingham and her aristocratic detective, Albert Campion, many years ago when I read two or three of her novels during a yearlong binge on detective fiction. (I read almost nothing but crime fiction in 1995; I suppose I was recovering from reading almost nothing but classics in college.) Although I enjoyed the Campion books that I read back then, it never occurred to me since to seek out more, and I’ve forgotten the details about the few that I did read. When I saw a write-up on Mystery Mile in the Bas Bleu catalog, I decided that I really ought to revisit the books.
Mystery Mile is the first of Allingham’s novels centered on Campion. (He was a minor character in The Crime at Black Dudley.) The story involves a wealthy American judge named Crowdy Lobbett who comes to England to escape an organized crime boss. Campion takes charge of ensuring that the judge and his family remain safe at a country estate called Mystery Mile. The book is really more of a novel of suspense than a proper whodunit. Allingham holds back too much information to give readers much of a chance of solving the mystery. Normally, that drives me crazy, but I think that solving the mystery is not really the point with this novel. What kept me reading was not the questions about the identity of the killer but the question of what’s going to happen next. As the book goes on, the action sequences get more and more thrilling—there are kidnappings, smoke bombs, secret identities, and quicksand—and the ending sent shivers down my spine.
Fans of Dorothy L. Sayers will no doubt see the similarities between Campion and Lord Peter Wimsey (possibly my favorite fictional detective). Both men have an aristocratic background and a playful demeanor that masks a fierce intelligence. Here we see Campion talking to Marlowe, the judge’s son, who is attempting to hire Campion to protect his father:
“I’ll undertake almost anything these days. But nothing sordid. I will not sell that tinted photograph of myself as Lord Fauntleroy. No. Not all your gold shall tempt me. I am leaving that to the Nation. Patriotism, and all that sort of rot,” he chattered on, proffering a particularly dangerous-looking cocktail. “All my own work. It contains almost everything except tea. Now, young sir, what can I do for you?”
Campion comes across as a little sillier than Wimsey here, but I suspect that has to do with the fact that this is early Campion. I’ve read all the Wimsey novels and seen him grow as a character, which I haven’t done with Campion, and Allingham provides plenty of reason to believe that there’s more going on with Campion than is explicitly revealed in the story. I’m looking forward to getting to know him better.