RogerBW's Blog

Police at the Funeral, Margery Allingham 09 July 2016

1931 classic English detective fiction; fourth of Allingham's novels of Albert Campion. The very elderly Caroline Faraday has a house in Cambridge run on strict Victorian lines; her ageing son, daughters and nephew put up with the lack of freedom for the free bed and board, having variously failed at their own lives. But everyone's fairly horrible, and it seems that one of them is also a murderer.

Early in the book, Campion muses:

As far as he could see, really attractive characters in this affair were going to be scarce, and it was delightful to find one at the breakfast-table so unexpectedly on the first morning of his arrival.

and sure enough that's what you're going to get here. Like some of Agatha Christie's later mysteries, anyone could have dunnit, and nobody is particularly pleasant, so you won't mind if it turns out to be them. Campion spends much of his time in the house with the ghastly people, thus having nobody to play off, and there's no Lugg at all. The Cambridge setting is largely wasted apart from a desire to get things sorted out before the students come back,

On the other hand, where Allingham's previous mysteries have been fairly thin and conventional, if anything mostly there to supply necessary form for the character studies that seem to have been her early priority, this one gives you a full-blown and distinctly challenging detective story (i.e. I didn't work out the guilty party's identity before the revelation) as well as the character studies. It probably helps that organised crime is no longer a plot element, since "who's working for the known bad guys" is replaced by the more interesting "who is a bad guy in his/her own right, and for what reasons".

Everything feels a bit stagey, to the extent that even Inspector Oates remarks upon the "conjuring trick" that seems to have been pulled (i.e. that the circumstantial evidence, like the woman apparently cut in two on stage, seems to have been carefully set up and is going to end up indicating something entirely different from what it appears to). There's even an actual honest locked-room mystery! The sudden appearance of a massive bare footprint in a flower-bed, far too big to belong to any of the inmates of the house, feels like an explicit attempt at misdirection.

"She clung to life as though she had ever got anything out of it, poor creature."

It's all a bit grim and baroque, so don't go into this expecting a conventional Golden Age mystery; but if you're willing to immerse yourself in pettiness and hatred, this is the book for you. Followed by Sweet Danger.

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