Early in the year I half seriously set myself the task of re-reading the Albert Campion novels of Margery Allingham. I read them originally when I was in my twenties and thirties and haven’t been back to them since, but I have always thought of them fondly because one of them taught me something interesting about myself which I shall reveal when I come to the appropriate book. (Like Albert himself, I am all for a bit of teasing to keep the troops guessing.) Then, I read them in a piecemeal fashion, dependent on whatever was in the library and, as I am fairly certain that the library didn’t have them all, this time round there will be some that will come as a pleasant surprise, however, Mystery Mile, the second novel in the series, I had read before, because I remember sorrowing for Albert over his lost love, Biddy Paget.
Biddy and her twin brother, Giles, live at the aforementioned Mystery Mile, but the upkeep on the decaying building is becoming impossible, so when their old friend Albert sends a message to say that he has found someone to take on the tenancy they are much relieved and makes plans to move into the dower house. Albert’s proposed tenants are the Lobbetts, an American family he has encountered on an Atlantic crossing. The paterfamilias, Judge Crowdy Lobbett, has become the target of the Simister gang because, rumour has it, he has discovered the carefully guarded secret of the identity of Simister himself. There have already been several associated deaths in the States and Campion foils yet another on the sea voyage. Judge Lubbett hopes to protect his grown children, Marlowe and Isopel, by bringing them to England and the offer of a house buried deep in the countryside is therefore welcome. When the four young people meet up there is an immediate attraction and pairing off, to the quite distress of Albert, who very clearly has a soft spot for Biddy himself.
Unfortunately, the Lubbett family has little time to enjoy the bucolic quiet of rural East Anglia. They are visited by a travelling fortune teller, Anthony Datchett, whose message so disturbs the twins’ old confident, the Rev. Swithen Cush, that he goes home and commits suicide. From that point on it is a race against time to keep one step in front of the villains, protect the Judge, uncover the identity of the scoundrel in chief and ensure that justice prevails.
When I wrote about The Crime at Black Dudley, which I hadn’t read before, I ‘complained’ that the Campion I encountered there was not the one I recalled. He wasn’t the central character and there were very few signs that he wasn’t the complete ass that he appeared to be. There has been a significant shift between the two novels. This is much more Albert as I remembered him, perfectly capable of appearing as an ass when he wants to, but deadly serious and competent underneath. We also begin to learn more of his background, albeit in a roundabout and rather unresolved way. No one seems to know his true antecedents and Giles remarks that
the last time I saw him we walked down Regent Street together, and from the corner of Conduit Street to the Circus we met five people he knew, including a viscountess and two bishops. Each one of them stopped and greeted him as an old pal. And every single one of them called him by a different name.
However, when Swithen Cush says of him,
our very good friend Albert is a true son of the Church. In the time of Richelieu he would no doubt have become a cardinal
Allingham is surely hinting at the habit practised by European royalty of sending younger sons into the Church to make their way (often through intrigue and manipulation) to the top of an institution every bit as powerful as any temporal monarchy. This is then picked up on in the final pages, when a down at heart Campion is revitalised by a letter crested with the arms of a famous European Royal House, inviting him to take on an impersonation that would have given joy to many a nineteenth century novelist looking for an intriguing plot twist. As I recall, this is a riddle that is never completely answered by Allingham, but it is interesting to see beginning to build a definite legend for her character as if she has decided she rather liked this young man she dropped into the middle of Black Dudley and that he is worth running with.
We also make our first acquaintance with the wonderful Magersfontein Lugg, who is definitely not out of the same school of butlers as either Jeeves or Bunter. Goodness only knows what his antecedents are at this stage in the series, but his pretensions are there for all to see in the letter he writes to Biddy and which she then cites to Albert
Lugg tells me you’re allowed out, in a really marvellous epistle which begins ‘Dear Madham’ and ends ‘Well Duckie, I must close now’.
I look forward to knowing more of his background.
Something that I did find myself wondering about was just why, given how irritated I was by the characters in The Pursuit of Love and their life style, I didn’t feel the same irritation for Allingham’s cast, who are from a similar milieu and share very much the same way of life. I think the answer is that while Mitford takes that life absolutely seriously, Allingham is well aware of the less than twenty twenty vision with which the upper classes viewed the world and is constantly poking sly fun. Recommending the fortune teller to Judge Lobbett, Giles comments
He’s an extraordinary chap. Apparently he turns up after dinner at country houses and shells out the past and present for five bob a time. Anyway, that sort of thing. Rather funny: he told Guffy Randell that a beautiful creature was going to throw him over and he was going to be pretty seriously hurt by it. Guffy was quite rattled. He didn’t ride to hounds for a fortnight, and it wasn’t until Rosemary Waterhouse broke off their engagement that he realised what the chap meant. He was awfully relieved.
Those last four words make all the difference.
Mystery Mile confirmed me in my resolve to return to Allingham’s Campion novels and I anticipate considerable pleasure in reading those still to come.