I am still slowly making my way through Marjorie Allingham‘s Albert Campion novels of which Sweet Danger is the fifth. I’d rather been putting this one off because the blurb I read suggested that it was set in some Mittel European country far away from Albert’s usual English Shires’ haunts. However, my concern proved unnecessary as, while the story does indeed begin on the continent where our universal uncle and deputy adventurer is masquerading as the Hereditary Paladin of Averna, it soon comes back to more familiar haunts as Albert and his three friends, Guffy Randall, Jonathan Eager-Wright and Dickie Farquharson, comb the wilds of Suffolk looking not only for the true heir to the tiny kingdom of Averna but also the proof that entitles said heir to the now very politically strategic throne. As a result of an earthquake this once landlocked state has suddenly acquired a minute, but very important, coastline, important because remarkably and pretty much simultaneously, untapped oilfields have also been discovered, hidden in a hinterland that is so small you could run through it in less time than it takes to write about it (did you remember to practise believing six impossible things before breakfast this morning?) and there is, of course, a dastardly villain who is looking to take advantage of this for his own evil ends.
Setting off to Pontisbright, in the hope of discovering a crown, a charter and, most important of all, the receipt that proves that the Earl of that name did indeed buy the right to Averna from Metternich, our intrepid adventurer encounters the Fitton family: Aunt Harriet Huntingforest, Mary, Amanda and Hal. According to family history, the last Earl of Pontisbright married one Mary Fitton several generations previously. However due to some very complicated shenanigans, the records of the marriage have disappeared and as a consequence the family are living on the proverbial tuppence ha’penny and there is no question of Hal being recognised as the heir to the Earl’s estate, let alone as Paladin of Averna. (Look, are you keeping up with all this? Because I promise you it’s going to get much more complicated. I haven’t even mentioned the mad local Doctor who is looking for a virgin sacrifice so that he can bring back to life a vicious, but no doubt in some way lucrative, demon. Voldemort, eat your heart out.)
The Fittons live in a rundown old mill on a measly hundred pounds a year and whatever the seventeen year old Amanda and their ne’er-do-well family help, Scatty Williams, can scratch together as a result of their truly terrifying “scientific“ experiments, including the cobbling together of what must surely be the first electric car. (If only they had thought to patten it.) When the bad guys turn up, quite happy to ransack the entire building and kill any who get in their way as they search for clues to the whereabouts of the necessary paraphernalia, otherwise known as proof, it is Amanda and Scatty, helped of course by the indefatigable Lugg, who play the principal and most dangerous roles in the inevitable foiling of the villain and all his evil works.
The presence of Amanda lifts the whole book. Her importance in the ongoing life of Campion is pretty much signalled at the end of the novel.
‘I say’, [said Amanda] ‘do you ever think about Biddy Pagett? You know – Biddy Lobbett.’
Mr Campion, dishevelled, and unbeautifully clad, met her frank enquiring gaze with one of his rare flashes of undisguised honesty.
’Yes,’ he said.
Amanda sighed. ‘I thought so. Look here,’ she went on. ‘I shan’t be ready for about six years yet. But then – well, I’d like to put you on the top of my list.’
Campion held out his hand with sudden eagerness. ‘Is that a bet?’
Amanda’s small cold fingers grasped his own. ‘Done,’ she said.
Having once created such a delightful creature, Allingham must have realised that she had, whether inadvertently or otherwise, provided the perfect helpmeet for Albert and consequently laid the ground work for her return, although I have another four books to read before she will surface for a second time.
I also found myself much happier in Campion’s company in this outing. The ‘silly ass’ persona, which in the first couple of novels seems designed to befuddle and mislead the reader every bit as much as the other characters, has now faded into the background and instead we are offered a much more likeable and understandable individual who hides behind a facade of foolishness only to mislead those who would do him or others harm or to hide the emotions which for once, in Amanda’s company, he has allowed to show through.
So, overall a pleasant weekend read. Next in line is Death of a Ghost, set in the art world, always a favourite locale of mine. I don’t think I shall leave such a long gap before picking that one up.