When I first set out to reacquaint myself with Marjorie Allingham’s strangely self-effacing private detective, Albert Campion, I knew that some of the books would turn out to be re-reads while others I would be reading for the first time. Police at the Funeral is the fourth book in the sequence and so far I’m running at two and two, with this being one of the novels that I am encountering for the first time. By this point in the series Allingham seems to have formulated a better idea of the type of character that she wants Albert to be. The silly ass of the first novel has pretty much vanished and the rather serious young man who can, annoyingly at times, play his cards very close to his chest, is becoming much more established. This is also true of his working relationship with Inspector Stanislaus Oates, who plays quite a prominent part in this story. Alas, the same cannot be said of Lugg, who makes but fleeting appearances at the beginning and end of the tale. For me, at least, a Campion novel without Lugg is definitely the poorer.
Although the majority of the action in Police at the Funeral takes place in and around Cambridge, the story begins in London where Oates and Campion find themselves, quite by chance (no, really!), in the same secluded courtyard, the former looking for somewhere to shelter from the rain and escape someone who is clearly dogging his heels, the latter apparently anticipating an assignation with a young lady with a family problem. Have you noticed, that there is always a young lady who needs rescuing from some sort of family problem? She will be well bred, striking in appearance and much more intelligent, brave and stalwart than most people have given her credit for. At least, that has been my experience so far. In this instance the lady in question is the fiance of an old university friend of Campion. Marcus Featherstone, now a solicitor in his father’s practice, has sought Albert’s help because Joyce, whom he describes as a species of professional daughter-cum-companion in the house of her great-aunt, a prodigious old Hecuba, is concerned about her uncle, Andrew Seeley, who has been missing for about a week. When Joyce and Oates’ stalker turn up at the same time it is very clear that they know each other but when challenged about this Joyce denies all knowledge of the individual, who has himself now vanished.
Of course, Campion agrees to go down to Cambridge, to Socrates Close, the house where Joyce lives with her Great Aunt, Caroline Faraday who rules the establishment with a rod of iron. Prodigious old Hecuba Caroline Faraday might be, but at least she appears to have her wits about her, which is more than can be said for anyone else in the household, which is made up of her son, William and her daughters, Julia and Kitty, each of whom appears to be more eccentric than the last, while the missing Andrew, Caroline‘s nephew, reportedly was the worst of the lot. Immediately recognising Albert for who he actually is, indeed, calling him by his given name, Caroline agrees to have him stay and his assistance becomes the more imperative when not only is Andrew’s body found, submerged, shot and bound in the River Granta, but that discovery is almost immediately followed by a further death in the family.
While the police are completely baffled by the case, it has to be said that so too, initially, is Campion (I knew he should have brought Lugg along) and his task is made none the easier by the eccentric behaviour of the remaining siblings and the family’s flat refusal to reveal the nature of the antagonism between them and the mystery man from London, who turns out to be Cousin George, a ne’er-do-well who turns up occasionally to blackmail a few pounds out of Caroline Faraday by threatening to reveal some deadly and dastardly family secret. It would help Campion no end if he knew what that secret was but Great Aunt Caroline flatly refuses to let the family skeleton see the light of day and so the only clue that he and we, the readers, have is Featherstone Senior’s macabre intoning of the words, I wondered when the bad blood in that family was going to tell. Well, what with the eccentric fantasies of the alcoholic Uncle William and the hypochondria of Aunt Julia and the fits of the vapours to which Aunt Kitty is disposed, there is plenty in the family that might conceivably be referred to as bad blood, however, be warned, when the mystery is finally solved and the secret that Caroline has sought so assiduously to defend is revealed, a modern audience is going to find her reticence, indeed her disgust, less than palatable. This is one Campion story which has not aged well and while Allingham’s original audience may well have had more sympathy for the Faraday position, I for one found it distasteful.
So, for me not the best of the bunch by any means. However, that won’t stop me picking up the next one, although I might leave it a month or two until the rather nasty taste has left my mouth.