It had become something of an annual tradition. Each year for the past seven years, a new, previously unreleased painting by the deceased artist John Lafcadio was unveiled at a grand soiree at the home of Lafcadio’s widow Belle in the Little Venice area of London. The unveiling, prescribed by the terms of Lafcadio’s will, attracts the art establishment, nobility, critics, art gallery owners, and )it was rumored) even an occasional royal personage.
One of the guests at this year’s unveiling is Albert Campion, a detective of independent means (his family is of the best lines in Britain, and no one ever mentions it.) He is a friend of Belle Lafcadio, and we see the extended Lafcadio family through his eyes. All goes well until the lights unexpectedly go out (Belle forgot the shilling for the meter). When the lights come back on, one of the attendees, a young man who had been engaged to Lafcadio’s granddaughter, is found stabbed to death with a pair of steel scissors.
Campion enlists the help of his friend, Inspector Stanislaus Oates of Scotland Yard. As the investigation gets underway, the private and professional detectives discover that there is no motive that can be determined, and an absolute dearth of suspects. Yet someone did the young man in.
Death of a Ghost by Margery Allingham was originally published in 1934, during the heyday of the Golden Age of the mystery novel. While many mysteries of the period could be formulaic, there is nothing formulaic about Allingham works in general and Death of a Ghost in particular.
She and the novel are also good reminders that mystery writers could write fine prose; if you haven’t read her novels, you might be surprised to discover how good a writer she is.
And this story has our hero Mr. Campion stumped. He understands fairly early on who the murderer is; the problem is that there is no evidence of the murderer’s guilt and no apparent motive. And then a second murder occurs, and it is just as frustrating as the first, and for the same reasons.
Death of a Ghost is a classic mystery story from a classic period of mystery writing. And its appeal endures.
Top photograph: Little Venice in London, courtesy of Hidden London.