Between 1929 and 1965, Margery Allingham (1904-1966) published some 18 mystery novels and three short story collections. She is one of the grande dames of the Golden Age of Mysteries, not quite as famous as Agatha Christie but (in my own opinion) a better writer.
Her amateur detective hero, Albert Campion, is, we’re led to believe, the younger son of a famous titled British family who uses the Campion name as a kind of working disguise. On first appearance, he strikes people as somewhat dimwitted, absentminded, and rather unimpressive. The people who know him, however, know he’s anything but.
In most of the stories, Campion is assisted by his manservant, Magersfontein Lugg, a former cat burglar who has done prison time and is especially helpful when force or criminal contacts are needed. Lugg is very present in Flowers for the Judge, one of Allingham’s best stories that breaks out of the mystery genre and moves in the direction of serious literary effort.
The publishing firm of Barnabas, Limited, is an old, esteemed firm still doing well in the 1930s. It is a family concern, operated and managed by a group of cousins of varying ages but mostly in their 40s and 50s. One of the cousins, Paul Brande, seems to have disappeared for a few days, his young wife not all that concerned at this somewhat normal behavior. Then Paul’s body is discovered in the firm’s strong room; it turns out that he has died of carbon monoxide poisoning. And not only died, but murdered – a pipe contraption was connected from a car in the garage to the room’s ventilation system.
An inquest leads to a finding leads to an arrest of another cousin and a trial. Campion, a friend of the family, is asked to help. And he does, at first rather fruitlessly, and then he unravels what actually happened.
It’s a fascinating story, full of old manuscripts, London atmosphere complete with fog and a trial at the Old Bailey, Lugg and Campion feuding through most of the story, romance, and even a mystery within a mystery (Campion will eventually solve both).
Flowers for the Judge is deservedly one of the Allingham classic mystery stories.
Photograph: Adjoining townhomes in London, the kind where much of the action of Flowers for the Judge takes place.