RogerBW's Blog

The Beckoning Lady, Margery Allingham 20 June 2017

1955 classic English detective fiction; fifteenth of Allingham's novels of Albert Campion. Campion's friends and country neighbours the Cassands are having their annual party; but three corpses will go some way towards spoiling the fun.

The first is that of Uncle William, who was a suspect and a motivating force in earlier books (Police at the Funeral and Dancers in Mourning); here, it seems, he may have taken one of the two remaining roles available in such a drama, and become the victim. Matters escalate with the death of an Inland Revenue official (except he isn't exactly) and someone else. Meanwhile the Cassands' Midsummer Eve party at their house, the Beckoning Lady, must go on.

Indeed, there's rather more party planning than there is investigation here, with Local Characters ranging from the consciously eccentric to the unconsciously ditto. Not to mention that Charlie Luke, rising young Detective Inspector, is busily having a passion for someone whom everyone regards as Entirely Unsuitable for him.

The wars had wiped out the Glebe line and the attendant revolutions the last of their fortune. Somewhere in the middle, all the great purposes for which they had bred themselves so carefully appeared to have gone too. Poor wretched girl, she had been born too late, and had arrived, meticulously turned out, for a party which had been over for some time. He understood from the Revver that as a somewhat desperate measure she had been given five years in the W.R.N.S. but had emerged from the experience just exactly the same as when she had enlisted. Looking at her, Mr Campion was no more surprised than if he had heard that two seasons with the Pytchley foxhounds had left an Afghan practically unchanged.

We're out of London and the fogs, but this is now a world of surtax and spiralling liabilities, and the remains of what used to be the aristocracy (and, one may suspect, Allingham herself) finding themselves suddenly helpless in the face of the culture of the official.

Mr Campion resumed his spectacles. 'It must be something to do with officialdom,' he said. 'Everything in the free world is, today. It'll pass, but at the moment we're in the midst of it. I know. I've lived through the Jazz Age, the Age of Appeasement, the Battle Age. Now it's the Age of the Official. By the law of averages we ought to move on to something more cheerful next time.'

There may be some dancing on the edge of the grave here, but at least Allingham's heroes still know how to enjoy themselves. There's a musical instrument apparently developed as a way to use up war-surplus perspex…

There have been many attempts to describe the glübalübalum and even the one submitted to the Patents Office was not particularly successful. As Tonker had pointed out, it was very large. It was also very simple, being in effect a very long tube with an immense horn at one end and a cork at the other. In between there were, so to speak, digressions. The newspaper which is called by its detractors the Daily Bibful had once employed a psychiatrist to explain to its readers the mechanics of their own reactions to it, but the articles were not convincing. It was only at Oxford that it was noted that the position of a person playing the glübalübalum approximated very closely to the attitude of the central figure of the Laocoön. Children, on the other hand, observed at once that its true charm was that it had obviously got out of hand.

and a pleasing pot at the "artistic temperament":

'Artist!' Luke spoke with withering contempt. 'People talk about artists as if they went about in flying saucers. The only artists I've ever met were just like me only more so.

Quite a few old friends show up here, including Campion's inamorata from The Case of the Late Pig:

'It always seems fine,' said Mr Campion, smiling fondly at her because he was so grateful that she had not married him. 'And that man is your father's Superintendent.'

'Oh well then—' She was a little pettish because she knew quite well what he was thinking, and although she was very fond of her husband, who was an even vaguer edition of the same type, she held it ungallant of him to be happy too.

I think this book must be considered mostly for the Campion fan, or at least for someone who's already read a few of the earlier books. The case is large and hard to keep distinct (some but not all editions include dramatis personae), and many names are thrown at the reader at the start of the book without any real sense of who's going to be a significant character and who, like "Genappe", is going to be a mere background presence. More seriously for the detective-fiction reader, the mystery is developed very slowly, and wrapped up rather quickly in a slightly unsatisfactory manner. On the good side, there's plenty of a domestic Campion with wife and son playing significant parts, and a decent cultural feel of the 1950s even if most of the people here would rather be pre-war.

Followed by Hide My Eyes.

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