RogerBW's Blog

Death of a Ghost, Margery Allingham 25 July 2016

1934 classic English detective fiction; sixth of Allingham's novels of Albert Campion. The great artist John Lafcadio left twelve final paintings, to be shown one per year after his death. At the unveiling of the eighth, a young artist is fatally stabbed with a pair of decorative scissors.

The assassination of another by any person of reasonable caution must, in a civilized world, tend to be a private affair.

I'm starting to think that Allingham just didn't have it in her to write a conventional mystery story. Here the setup seems fairly normal, except for a paucity of clues, complete with blatantly false confession and dark motives round every corner; but after the second killing, Campion announces that he's quite sure who the murderer is, he just can't make a case. The remainder of the book is an examination of how the murderer can be caught and indeed the motives for his actions; and, at that, Campion fails to spot what's going on when he offers himself up as a fresh target, or even to bring conclusive proof of the murders.

There's subtlety here too: that young artist married his impossibly beautiful but ugly-minded model to get her into England, and proposed a ménage a trois with his former fiancée, Lafcadio's granddaughter; and she refused, not on moral grounds, but because she thought his recent art was commercial dross as opposed to the good stuff he'd been doing when she met him. The household consists of Lafcadio's widow, said granddaughter, and two elderly former models and thus presumed mistresses; but they get on with life under the shadow of Lafcadio's ghost, even when they intensely dislike each other, because they have that memory in common and nobody else does.

There's also a sideswipe at other amateur heroes of the day, and I can't help seeing Dornford Yates and his kin as the target of this:

The fact remains, of course, that the people who say to themselves, "There is real danger here and I think it had better confront me rather than this helpless soul before me," are roughly divided into three groups. There are the relatives, and it is extraordinary how the oft-derided blood-tie decides the issue, who, moved by that cross between affection and duty, perform incredible feats of self-sacrifice.

Then there are those misguided folk, half hero, half busybody, who leap into danger as if it were the elixir of life.

And finally there is a small group of mortals who are moved partly by pity and partly by a passionate horror of seeing tragedy slowly unfolded before their eyes and who act principally through a desire to bring things to a head and get the play over, at whatever cost.

Mr Campion belonged to the last category.

Lugg and his leavening of humour are absent again, and indeed this is a fairly grim book throughout, with its focus on death and decay and might-have-beens from the Gay Nineties. The villain is especially well drawn, and Allingham does a good job of showing how traits that many would consider admirable can, by slight exaggeration, push someone to cunning murder. There's a certain amount of Police at the Funeral here, with cunning and subtle methods of murder – and with characters who are simply unpleasant, even if not actually guilty of anything.

A strange but rewarding book. Followed by Flowers for the Judge.

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