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The Napoleon of Crime
on 21 October 2014
I like many of Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion novels, particularly those with a strong sense of geography, but found this one trying. Even the chief villain complains that Campion’s schoolboy humour is tiresome, though it is Campion who makes the novel, with his diffident manner and ability to look ahead. I can see why Allingham went on to develop the character over many years; this is only his second appearance (1930) and his gruff-but-true helpers, notably Lugg, are also on the way to being refined, though that doesn’t seem the right word for Lugg. Allingham is of her time in her now-embarrassing portrayals of country yokels, rough city-criminals and, in Lugg’s case, a London sidekick. Women are plucky when they are on Campion’s side. Foreigners are not to be trusted. The villain, too, is more villainous up until the point that he is identified and has to be described in person. Even Sherlock Holmes’ great adversary, Professor Moriarty, is more interesting in his absence, which also the point of T. S. Elliot’s poem:
… he’s called the Hidden Paw.
For he’s the master criminal who can defy the Law.
He’s the bafflement of Scotland Yard, the Flying Squad’s despair:
For when they reach the scene of crime – Macavity’s not there.
In an effort to protect an American judge who knows the identity of the master criminal, Campion hides him in the Suffolk village of Mystery Mile, and here what we could now call Allingham’s psycho-geography comes into its own: there are misty creeks, tidal salt-marshes, quick-sand, a maze, and houses which creak and another with a trap-door to the river (and the quick-sand).
If readers haven’t tried Margery Allingham’s fiction, I wouldn’t start with “Mystery Mile” but would try, one of the later ones., “The China Governess” or the last, “Cargo of Eagles”. Both are London novels. Also, as Campion is called on to engage with more dangerous antagonists than in "Mystery Mile" and to respond to war-time and post-war espionage, his enigmatic character develops.