A detective with amnesia is a pretty good gimmick for a mystery novel. Like any gimmick, it could go badly wrong, but when it works, it works well. It can raise the stakes and put the usually invulnerable detective in a position of weakness, and it can be a way of exploring which aspects of a detective’s skills are so ingrained as to be instinctual. And in the case of Traitor’s Purse by Margery Allingham, it can cause the detective to reconsider his own identity.
When Albert Campion wakes up in a hospital bed, he has no idea who he is or how he got there. The only thought in his head is the anxiety-inducing word fifteen. He overhears a conversation that leads him to realize that he’s there for “slugging” a police officer, an offense for which he’s likely to hang, and he decides that the only safe course is escape. The novel tells of his efforts to recall who he is and to get to the bottom of the mystery he was investigating.
The earlier Campion novels were adventure stories, rather than whodunits, and Campion himself is an adventurer who puts on a face of amiable goofiness a lot of the time. Like those early novels, this is more of an adventure story than a whodunit–this one focusing on a possible conspiracy of spies. The mystery is solved in a flash near the end; I can’t imagine a reader figuring out what’s going on, although readers who are cleverer than I am might recognize a few bits of misdirection along the way. The series gets more serious as it goes on, and this is the most serious book yet. It’s not without its comic moments, but those are mere moments, rather than lengthy scenes. This is an introspective book in which Campion comes face-to-face with who he is and what he wants.
Much of the novel’s seriousness revolves around Campion’s relationship with Lady Amanda Fitton. Their relationship has been difficult to define, to put it mildly, and Amanda takes steps in this book that force Campion to confront how he feels about her. As glad as I was about this development, I wish Amanda had appeared a few more times to give the courtship time to cook before a definite move was made. This is her third appearance, and the possibility of genuine romance was hinted at in the previous books, but this book was the first time that it seemed serious. Amanda is a great character, and I think she and Campion make a great couple, but I’m not sure I would have thought so had I not known from the start where the relationship was going (partly because I read this and some of the later Campion books several years ago). Still, I’m glad she’s going to be around more. It gives me something to look forward to in future books.