The idea of extrasensory perception (ESP) has coursed through popular culture and scientific circles for more than a century, although scientific research still comes up short in finding proof for its existence. A wave of interest and research in the 1930s was followed by a similar one in the 1960s, that decade of “anything goes,” “freeing” the mind, and use of drugs to create “psychedelic” experiences.
It was in the context of that interest in the 1960s that mystery writer Margery Allingham (1904-1966) published The Mind Readers, a story starring her best-known detective Albert Campion. And I wouldn’t be surprised to find another context of influences on this novel – that if Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels and the movies based upon them.
Allingham was too original a writer to be merely derivative, however. She takes a story about ESP research, a nefarious industrialist, competing national security agencies, and treason, adds a murder, and involves two young boys as key players to create a rather fascinating mystery story.
Research involving mind experiments is being undertaken at an island just off the coast of East Anglia in Britain. A young American couple are living there, with the husband one of the key researchers. They have an eight-year-old son, Sam, who attends boarding school with Edward, a ward of Albert and Amanda Campion. On their way home with their classmates for term break, the two boys are nearly kidnapped. As they explain later, they communicated with each other via small electronic tubes taped to their bodies, and foiled the kidnapping.
Then Sam’s father is drugged and almost dies in what his boss claims is a suicide attempt. The boss is murdered. Edward disappears. And all kinds of people – good and bad – are desperate to find Edward.
How did the boys get the strange tubes? How do the tubes work? Who killed the research boss? Where is Edward, and who will find him first?
It’s an entertaining story, as all of Allingham’s stories are, well-written and well-plotted. It’s also the last of Allingham’s novels that she published in her lifetime (she died the year following its publication). It does strain credulity at times, and it has a small problem of introducing too many new characters late in the narrative. But it still bears the mark of Allingham’s quality writing, and her beloved detective Campion maintains his outwardly eccentric-and somewhat-at-sea but inwardly shrewd-and-highly-intelligent persona to the end.
The Beckoning Lady by Margery Allingham
Top photograph by Petr Kratochvil via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.