RogerBW's Blog

The Mind Readers, Margery Allingham 06 October 2017

1965 classic English detective fiction; eighteenth of Allingham's novels of Albert Campion. Someone seems to be developing mechanically-assisted telepathy, but what does it have to do with Campion's nephew?

Still detective fiction, then, but with a strong element of SF; it rapidly becomes clear that the telepathic amplifiers really do exist, and there's a fair bit of speculation on how society will change as a result, even if it's mostly the usual tension between "this will be terrible" and "we'll muddle through somehow" rather than the more detailed examination that a science fiction book might explore.

The setting is oddly split; as with Marsh, Allingham seems to prefer the ethos of the twenties and thirties, but she has gone to some trouble to make this a contemporary book rather than follow Marsh's example by writing historical pieces in all but name. It's not just window-dressing with transistors and Humber Hawks; it's a plot dealing with international espionage and a distinctly dodgy captain of industry who's playing the game too, with confused loyalties and perhaps nobody trustworthy beyond the principals. (It could easily have been made into an episode of The Avengers.)

The scene below had much of the bewildering inconsequence of a television studio coupled with the gift section of a department store. Since much of the firm's business lay with clients who required hidden microphones in other people's premises, there was a fine florid collection of gifts: chandeliers, ash trays on stalks, baroque table lamps, ormolu clocks, and bedside cabinets, as well as toys in quantity and what are known darkly in the trade as "small antiques." The fact that they all contained hidden ears comforted Mr. Campion, since he felt it provided a sane if not very pleasant reason for their existence at all, and he looked at the scene below with growing interest.

The fear of nuclear destruction is here too (accentuated perhaps in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis), including the End of the World Man who seems as though he's going to be another invisible man as seen in The Tiger in the Smoke… but he's mostly dropped from the story when Allingham apparently loses interest in him.

There's mystery in terms of who killed someone (the set of candidates for murderer is quite small, but Allingham tries to make one think that it might have been one of the many off-stage spies); the bigger mystery is in just who came up with the amplifier, because nobody seems to be taking credit, and the resolution to this is somewhat unsatisfactory.

The whole thing is a bit of a mess at times, with too many characters who are nothing but names (some of whom are mentioned only at the beginning and end of the book and are completely irrelevant to the story). On the other hand, Campion is directly involved with the investigation, neither sitting off on the sidelines and observing nor fixing everything while off-stage. He finds things out, he makes mistakes, and he reasonably fears for his life. There's even some decent tradecraft, with dead drops and telephone conversations secured at least against casual eavesdropping. Some old friends return, and if ages are bit fuzzy there's no real harm done.

The avenue of the years rolled back like a dream sequence from a nonprofit-making film, and the two stood looking at each other, lost in that incredulous dismay with which old colleagues see each other fifteen years older and far less changed than alarmingly overemphasized by the interval.

I think this must have been quite a polarising book; it's not at all what one expects of a mystery writer, but for me at least it works rather well.

This is the last book written entirely by Allingham. It's followed by Cargo of Eagles, which was completed by Allingham's husband after her death; he went on to write two more Campion novels, and to leave his own fragmentary manuscript when he died. There are also some collections of short stories, similarly published posthumously.

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