Timothy Kinnit has just about everything going for him. Adopted as a baby into a wealthy family, he’s just finished Oxford. He’s in love with Julia Laurell, a beautiful young woman whose father is a major manufacturer (and wealthy). Tim and Julia are right on the verge of eloping.
And then the world turns upside down. Tim had always believed he was the illegitimate son of a Kinnit, and that turns out not to be the case. He goes looking for where he came from, and gets beaten up by a private detective. There appears to be a connection to the trashing of an apartment in the area of east London where Tim was likely born. And then the detective agency finds itself the victim of arson, and Tim is the prime suspect.
Enter Superintendent Charles Luke of Scotland Yard. And enter amateur detective Albert Campion.
In The China Governess, Golden Age mystery writer Margery Allingham (1904-1966) mixes an eccentric family, secrets buried in the past, disguised identities, a murder or two, and romance (it’s not an Allingham mystery novel without romance). The result is a fast-paced, entertaining mystery.
First published in 1963, three years before Allingham’s death, and set in the early 1960s, The China Governess isn’t the kind of English country manor murder mystery so popular during the Golden Age (1920s-1940s). There’s only one short scene that actually occurs in the country, and that happens early in the book. Most of the action is centered in London, which is still rebuilding after the blitz of 1940-1941. There are still relics of earlier houses, however, and the Kinnits’ Well House is one of them.
It’s an Albert Campion mystery, and Campion is the sleuth that helped make Allingham famous in her own lifetime. But the character who steals the show is Mrs. Broome, something of the housekeeper for the Kinnits’ country home who comes to London to help out at Well House. Almost Dickensian in character, Mrs. Broome is alternately funny, insightful, forgetful, and always highly protective. She is one of Allingham’s great characters.
The China Governess is a great treat, demonstrating that Allingham lost none of her detective writing abilities in her later books.
The Beckoning Lady by Margery Allingham
Top photograph: a London cul-de-sac much like the setting of Well House in The China Governess.