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One of the best "unfinished" books ever published?
on 13 August 2012
I read somewhere that Margery Allingham achieved the remarkable consistency of her novels by writing them three times, using what we might now call a debugging technique on each iteration. As she died before she finished the first version of Cargo of Eagles, we have a unique opportunity to sense the quality of her output - even before she was satisfied with it. Since she worked with a highly detailed plan, and suspected that she might not make if through this last Campion, it was a relatively straightforward task for her husband Pip to finish the last few pages, which he did with Marjorie's blessing. I sometimes think I can see the join, but suspect that I can't really.
When I first read this book, about a year after publication, I didn't like it. Probably because I was just a bit younger than the bikers in the book and thought an ancient person like Allingham had no business writing about things she couldn't possibly understand. Re-reading it now, I realise just how silly I was! In common with others of the later Allinghams, Cargo of Eagles uses the desolate backdrop of post-war east London as its principal setting, with an insightful examination of the almost incestuous community that remains. Campion is asked to look into the disappearance of tens of thousands of pounds worth of gold coinage, possibly by an act of piracy during the closing stages of the war. There are a couple of highly sinister villains lurking in the background, a band of arrogant and noisy bikers, a poison pen campaign, at least one murder, and in the midst of it all - Lugg - creating the ideal retirement bungalow! As I read this, I realised that it is located not too far down river from the area recently rejigged for the Olympic Games. So, that's another valuable literary location permanently lost! Still, at least it returns Allingham to a sort of topicality.
This is a very good book, not the best of Allingham, but it demonstrates yet again her commitment to portray things as they were, never wallowing in the past like lesser authors. She does this so well that you could use her output as a singularly enjoyable way of studying social history in early to mid-20th century Britain. Well worth a read!