2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
The first of the really great Campion novels,
This review is from: Police at the Funeral (Paperback)
The sprawling house of a long-dead Master of a Cambridge college, inhabited by a bevy of servants and three generations of his family; the whole run for decades with ruthless precision by his now 84-year-old widow. It seems that someone, probably within the family, is determined to kill them off, one by one. Enter Campion, a friend of the family's solicitor, to solve the mystery before too much damage is done.
The matriarch runs the house to a strict timetable and code of behaviour, firmly set in the late 1800's, although the current date is the late 1920's! For example, she trundles off to church in a horse-drawn carriage, the house has no phone, and the decor, although maintained, has remained unchanged for decades. All the live-in relatives, with one exception - the fiancee of the solicitor - are financial inadequates totally dependent on the matriarch for survival, even though they are mostly well past fifty years old. Allingham portrays this bizarre scenario with unerring skill - you "see" the house, you sense and respond to the petty jealousies and hatreds that bubble beneath the surface and, with a little understanding of what life was like in that elite sector of society between the wars - you accept and believe in it. In short, you become part of the household.
If you find it difficult to believe that such a household could exist in the late 1920's, let me tell you that I was born in 1946 and I met two women very similar to the matriarch, in large houses with dependent relatives, in the 1950s. That sort of thing didn't really die out until the 1960's. Some complain that the ending of this novel is an anti-climax. However, it is fairly clear two-thirds of the way through that only one person could have killed the first victim. I found the explanation totally adequate and believable, as is the disclosure of the family "scandal". To a family, apparently of lesser nobility, whose attitudes were rooted in 1890, it would have been hugely important to suppress such a story. Indeed, it would still be an issue with some today!
This book is a wonderful read at many levels. It contains a wonderfully evocative vignette describing the Holborn area in the late 1920's. But the description of the house in Cambridge, and the family within, is the real reason you enjoy the story. The characters are often utterly nuts, but mostly strangely sympathetic. The crimes give the plot great pace and add to the tension created by the discord in the house. But, as is common with subsequent Allingham novels of the same calibre, you close the book with a feeling of regret - sensing that you will never know the characters again - but wanting to know what happened to them.
SPOILER ALERT. Finally, the matter of Allingham copying the method of the first killing from a very late Sherlock Holmes short story (published in book form only 9 years before this novel). It seems to me that Allingham freely acknowledges this when she describes that the method of removing the gun was originally by tying it to a brick, which would carry it into the river when the gun was let go - the method used by Doyle. But, Allingham's killer abandons the brick in favour of the clock weight, a more efficient mechanism. This is a joke, implying that Allingham's use of the method is generally an improvement on Doyle's - which indeed it is. Allingham loved a joke, it's one of the things that makes her books so readable.