A mystery begins with a slashed painting at an exhibition, one in a series of growing acts of vandalism at the London gallery hosting it. Next door is the home of the gallery owner, the Ivory family. Both the gallery and the home sit on a square in the St. James area of London, not unlike St. James Square itself.
The patriarch, Meyrick Ivory, is in China, shopping for art. His son-in-law Robert Madrigal is in charge, but he’s been acting increasingly odd and erratic. He’s assisted by Henry Lucar, an odious man who seems to have decided he will marry into the family. Robert’s wife Phillida seems a chronic invalid. Frances Ivory, a young woman of 21 who seems to have the most level head in the family, isn’t involved in the gallery but is smart enough there is trouble. And then the family is joined by Myerick’s mother, the grande dame Gabrielle, who at 90 commands a definite presence.
And then Robert is killed. Vandalism has progressed to murder.
Thus begins Black Plumes, a mystery by Golden Age writer Margery Allingham. Originally published in 1940, the mystery is one of the very few that did not feature Allingham’s famous detective Albert Campion (although he lived not far away from the setting for this novel). But it does include all the trademarks of an Allingham mystery – a puzzling murder; more than a hint of romance; one or two really nasty characters; police investigators who are competent while the detecting is left almost completely to the amateurs, in this come, Frances and the painter who artwork was slashed, David Field.
The story takes place almost completely with the Ivory’s house, with only a few scenes in the gallery next door.
The Margery Allingham Estate has been republishing the mystery writer’s works (see below for the ones already published). And it’s a good thing they are. While not as well-known as some of the other writers of the period like Agatha Christie, Allingham published numerous mystery stories that were well received and still resonate as good stories today.
I didn’t think I would enjoy a Campion-less story as much as one with Campion, but I was wrong, Black Plumes is an intriguing and enjoyable read.
Top photograph: Adjacent houses in St. James Square, London, similar to the houses in the fictitious square in the novel.