RogerBW's Blog

Dancers in Mourning, Margery Allingham 02 October 2016

1937 classic English detective fiction; eighth of Allingham's novels of Albert Campion. Someone's playing silly pranks on Jimmy Sutane, star of a successful musical; he invites Campion to look into it. But then one of Sutane's house-guests dies: accident, suicide, murder? Later US vt Who Killed Chloe?.

Allingham is back to the plot-twist gimmicks, and the gimmick this time is that Campion himself is literally the last to know who the murderer is. To be fair, he has reason: he's found himself smitten at first sight with Sutane's wife, and not wanting to make matters worse he does his best to extricate himself from an awkward situation. But as the bodies start to pile up, both the Sutanes and the police insist that Campion should get involved again.

Love or money can conceal every other disturbing occurrence to be met with in civil life, but sudden death is inviolate. A body is the one thing that cannot be explained away.

So Campion's most definitely off his game here; the police get the culprit, and so should the alert reader, before it's borne in on Campion just what's really going on. He does still uncover all the evidence (and there's a lot to uncover): it's just that he puts the wrong interpretation on it. The detective who gets things wrong is not entirely what I read a mystery story for.

Even before the murders, though, it's clear that this is more than the ordinary tricky situation. Managing publicity is the constant bass line under the initial investigation: making any sort of fuss about the pranks, and especially going to the police, would get the press interested, and then Sutane's shows would be eclipsed in the public eye by Sutane himself.

But all that's forgotten when Chloe Pye, has-been actress — who's been out of the public eye for years but whom Sutane invited into his current hugely successful show for no obvious reason — dies; Sutane ran into her (by accident, he says) with his car, but it seems she may have been dead before she was struck.

"Got yourself mixed up in a suicide now, I see. People lay theirselves open to somethink when they ask you down for a week-end, don't they?"

So there's Sutane, his wife Linda, his neglected child Sarah, and his moody younger sister Eve; there's Miss Finbrough, who these days would be called Sutane's physical therapist; there's Squire Mercer the composer, off in his own world of new music and mechanical toys:

A remarkable wireless set took up the whole of one wall. It was an extraordinary contraption which looked as if it might have been designed by Heath Robinson in the first place and afterwards allowed to grow, in Virginia-creeper fashion, over everything which happened to lie in its path.

(I've had computers like that.)

…and there's "Sock" Petrie the publicity man, Benny Konrad the poisonous understudy, "Slippers" Bellew the co-star, and "Uncle William" from Police at the Funeral, whose memoir the musical was based on in the first place, and who's Campion's entrée to the whole business. It is perhaps slightly too many people, and some of them could have been cut without doing major damage to the story, giving room for a bit more personality and distinctiveness for the others.

But there is at least a little bit of Lugg; this is a Lugg who's treated badly by Campion and gives it back in kind, not the most comfortable reading, though the fact that he's still employed at the end of it all can be taken as an indication of how much Campion values him.

"This is a mad'ouse, you know. If I was the inspector I'd arrest the lot, give 'em good food and attention fer a month, and 'ang the one 'oo was still crackers at the end of the time."

The detection of the murderer is almost entirely a matter of character: there are no mysterious footprints or painstaking railway timetable analyses here. Anyone could have done it; the question is who would have done it, and why. As far as I'm concerned this part of the thing is about as good as a detective story gets.

[He] remained posed in front of them, the light playing on his hair and on the soft folds of his coat. There was an irregular board in the floor, Mr. Campion noticed, to show him just where to stand if this effect was to be satisfactorily attained.

It's not a perfect book but it's a very fine one; my reading of Allingham is still in the phase where each new book is the best yet. Followed by The Case of the Late Pig.

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