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Enter Mr Campion
on 5 June 2012
This is the first of Allingham's wonderful Campion series. They are not really whodunnits a la Christie, but more adventure stories, even though many of them have a twist at the end - as does this one. Allingham's great gifts are a Dickensian ability with characterisation and scene-setting; evident, but not yet mature, in this early work. She also understands how to use dialogue to move the plot along, to develop character, and to build tension. Moreover, Allingham's dialogue is believable conversation, making allowances for when the books were written and the idiosyncracies of Campion!
A house party at an ancient mansion develops a macabre twist when the uncle of the host is murdered, and the older guests turn out to be a horribly stereotypical German criminal mastermind and his henchmen, out to retrieve a priceless missing document. The novel pursues a series of exciting adventures as the younger guests attempt to escape, including rambles through secret passages and the like. There are two very notable characters, Mrs Meade - a yokel with religious mania who locks herself in a room for days waiting for the bad guys to meet their fate at the hands of her belligerent son, and Albert Campion - originally introduced to add a touch of whacky humour but he imposes himself on the plot to such an extent that Allingham's American publishers virtually insisted that he should feature in future novels. Amen to that! The actual main character of this novel, Abbershaw - a freelance pathologist, was intended to be the hero in subsequent works, but he is dull, dull, dull!
Even in this early work, the quality of Allingham's prose shines through - later acknowledged by the great American realist crime writer Raymond Chandler - who was highly critical of the formulaic technique of Christie, for example. My main criticism of this novel is in the motivation of the killer. This implies a sort of brain-washing that simply would not work, and is more the product of an intellectual snobbery prevalent in many of the British middle-classes before the great leveller that was WW II. To Allingham's credit, I can't think of a later Campion novel where this is the case - probably helped by the introduction of Lugg. Similar thoughtlessness is endemic in much of the work of Christie (even after WW II) and, to a lesser extent, in some of Dorothy L. Sayer's offerings.
All in all, a good read and a taste of much greater things to come.