I’ve been a fan of Margery Allingham (1904-1966) and her fictional private detective Albert Campion since I first started reading her novels in the 1970s. Allingham was one of the queens of the Golden Age of Mystery (1920s-1940s), and her books remain in print more than half a century after her death.
Allingham began publishing in 1923 when she was only 19. But it was The Crime at Black Dudley in 1929 that established her as one of the best mystery writers of the era. That story introduced Campion, a private detective who has assumed his name because he’s actually a title in one of Britain’s leading aristocratic families. His “man” or butler, Magersfontein Lugg, a convicted felon who has seen the inside of prison, also contributed to Allingham’s success.
Campion lives in a flat on Bottle Street in Piccadilly in London, right above a police station. Bottle Street is a fictitious cul-de-sac, but real institutions close by include the Royal Academy of Arts, Fortnum & Mason, and the Ritz Hotel. Piccadilly Circus is close by on the east, as is Green Park on the west.
The recently published The Return of Mr. Campion is a collection of 13 stories by Allingham, not all of which feature the detective. In fact, most of them don’t include her star character. The stories are all good ones, and the non-Campion stories help display the broader extent of Allingham’s talent.
In “The Case is Altered,” Campion travels to the estate of friends for a weekend house party, and a letter suggesting a late-night tryst at the fountain in the garden ends up in the wrong hands. “The Dog Day” involves the detective accidentally overhearing the name of a dog, which turns out to be something of a spoiler.
In “The Wind Glass,” a Japanese gentleman studying in Britain falls in love with a young English woman in his class. He formally asks her father for her hand in marriage, and the English family reacts as if insulted. The man is humiliated and sends a gift of wind chimes that will almost be the family’s undoing. “The Beauty King” is about a hairdresser who develops a secret process that can transform women, but he doesn’t realize his greatest triumph. In a similar story, “The Kernel of Truth,” a man is willed a punch recipe that creates a phenomenal sense of well-being, if it’s mixed exactly right.
Campion is back in “The Black Tent,” and during a party he sees a beautiful teenaged girls use a knife to jimmy open a library drawer – which will lead to the apprehension of a trans-Atlantic blackmailer. In “The Curious Affair in Nut Row,” Campion is merely a listener to a story told by a policeman. “What to Do with an Aging Detective” is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek story, involving both an elderly Campion and an even-more-elderly Magersfontein Lugg. “Tall Story” finds Campion again listening to a policeman’s story about a crime that appeared to be impossible to commit and prove.
“Sweet and Low” is something of a love story, involving horses, country estates, and the hero almost ending up with the wrong fiancée. In “Once in a Lifetime,” a well-known actress is on a train, arranging her large number of bags to discourage others from sharing her compartment. One man, however, barges in, and she hopes he doesn’t recognize her as his first young love. Or does she? “Happy Christmas” is about a young family, unexpectedly left to themselves for the holiday, who learn what the spirit of the season actually means. “The Wisdom of Esdras” is a ghost story, set in a large cottage in the country, with a guest who becomes almost desperate to help a ghostly girl.
The collection includes two non-fiction articles by Allingham. “My Friend Mr. Campion” describes how the author came to invent the detective, explaining how he appeared in the first novel that featured him. And the introduction, “Mystery Writer in the Box,” is a delightful essay on the art of writing mystery stories.
The Return of Mr. Campion is a welcome addition to the published novels and stories of one of the big names of the Golden Age. It also works by itself and could serve as an introduction to Allingham’s work.
Top photograph: British actor Peter Davison as Albert Campion in the 1980s television series.