A country house. A missing man. A family with secrets. A dead body. An amateur investigator. All the ingredients of your basic Golden Age murder mystery. Published in 1931, Margery Allingham’s fourth Albert Campion novel, Police at the Funeral, is very much in the Golden Age tradition, perhaps even more so than the previous two novels, but I get the sense that Allingham is having fun playing with reader expectations.
I’ve noticed before that the Campion books are as much adventure stories as they are mysteries. The ones I’ve read did have a murder to be solved, but I wasn’t convinced that the readers were given the information needed to solve them. There was no meticulous laying out of clues or suspects, just lots of exciting happenings tempered with dashes of Campion’s particular sort of silliness. In this book, Campion outright says that he’s not a private detective but a “deputy adventurer.” If this is an admission on Allingham’s part that her novels aren’t quite proper detective fiction, it’s interesting to note that this book is far more traditional a detective story than the two previous. There are clues and suspects and a scene in which the detective—er, adventurer—holds forth on how he solved the crime. I doubt most readers could solve the mystery here, but this is the first Campion novel in which I think we’ve been given a fighting chance.
The mystery involves a family that lives in a country house near Cambridge governed by the formidable great-aunt Caroline. Among the residents are Caroline’s son William, her daughters Julia and Catherine, her nephew Andrew, and Catherine’s niece by marriage, Joyce. Joyce is engaged to Campion’s old friend Marcus, so when Andrew goes missing, they ask Campion to help. In the fashion of so many detective novels, bodies begin to mount up as the suspect list dwindles, but the resolution doesn’t seem to get any closer.
Campion himself isn’t much help to the reader—or to the police. It’s clear that he figures things out long before they’re revealed, but the reader is only rarely privy to his thoughts. We do, however, get most of the information that he has, which is why I say we’re given a chance to solve the mystery.
A large part of the appeal in these books is in Campion himself. I’m a complete sucker for the character who is deeper and more intelligent, strong, and intense than he appears. (This quality is at the root of most of my fictional character crushes.) Campion intentionally sets himself up to be underestimated. He wears enormous horn-rimmed spectacles that make him look less intelligent—one character observed that “without his spectacles his appearance had gained at least 50 percent in intelligence.” He puts on a mask of “affable stupidity” to ease his nemeses into complacency before he snaps into action if needed. And when he snaps, look out! I appreciated in this book that we could see how seriously he takes his work. He seems genuinely disturbed by some of the events, a feeling that was not so much in evidence in The Gyrth Chalice Mystery, where he was mostly having fun. I’m planning to continue reading these in order, and I’m excited to see how he continues to grow.