This 1955 mystery by Margery Allingham finds Albert Campion and his wife Amanda back at Pontisbright, the setting of Sweet Danger. Uncle William Faraday, who previously appeared in Police at the Funeral and Dancers in Mourning has just died, apparently of natural causes. Detective Inspector Charlie Luke is visiting to convalesce after a recent injury, and he’s taking what Campion considers an unfortunate interest in Prunella Scroop-Dory, the plain daughter from an aristocratic family. Despite the general feeling of grief over Uncle William’s unexpected death, the town is abuzz with preparations for Tonker and Minnie Cassands’ upcoming garden party. The discovery of a body in the river is not about to stop the festivities.
The body, originally believed to be that of a tramp, turns out to belong to a local tax inspector who’d been giving Tonker and Minnie a difficult time about some unpaid taxes. Minnie was willing to do what she could to pay up, but the constant monitoring of expenditures and the extremely intrusive advice was wearing thin. The man is now dead from a blow to the head, and Campion’s suspicions are raised when he learns that Uncle William had not been ill before he died. Two unexpected deaths so close together can hardly be a coincidence.
After the serious and atmospheric Tiger in the Smoke, my favorite of the Campion novels so far, this book feels light and a little silly—that despite the extremely creepy and realistic masks one of the characters creates. So much of the narrative involves the antics of party preparations and the eccentricities of Tonker and Minnie that it’s easy to get carried away with the silliness of it all and forget all the sinister doings around the edges. These hardly seem like people living in the shadow of a murder—perhaps two. The Campion novels frequently juxtapose light and dark, usually in the person of Campion himself. But by this point in the series, he’s set aside his amiable buffoonery and is now surrounded by amiable buffoons. Even the always dedicated Charlie Luke has given over to romance while Campion is concerned with getting to the bottom of a crime.
The crime itself turns out to be nearly, but not quite, accidental. And Campion’s way of getting at the solution is more than a little unsettling. Here, his focus on exposing the killer has a dark side, but it’s for a good cause. And as usual, Amanda has his number. She knows what he’s done and sees that it’s just what was needed so that everyone can move on.