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Mr Campion and Others, Margery Allingham 20 November 2016

1939/1950 collection of short mystery stories featuring Albert Campion.

Short mystery stories are an odd thing. I first remember meeting them with Christie's The Labours of Hercules, which work fairly well as a set: there's some amount of common thread (beyond the basic setup of "there is a problem, Hercule Poirot solves it"), but they don't get samey. That's a hazard with stories that were written for separate publication, though, and it's one that this collection suffers from.

The title has been used twice, and I apparently read the 1950 version. The 1939 also contains stories not starring Campion, hence "and Others". That would certainly have helped to break up the pattern: in London, an attractive young woman appeals for help or is otherwise involved in getting Campion into an investigation; he effortlessly solves it, by means of observations not shared with the reader until it's time to explain; and the young woman ends up married to someone else. Not every story follows this structure, but enough of them do that they start to feel distinctly repetitive.

What I've found most enjoyable in Allingham's work is the character development over the long term, and there's really very little room for that in stories that average about 7,000 words; nor is there space for misdirection, which is perhaps why Allingham so often cheats by not giving the reader all the information needed to solve the mystery. Still, to the committed reader of detective novels they're a bit of a disappointment.

The Widow deals with an obvious scam, but Campion's the only man to spot it as such. Well, it was a more innocent time, I suppose.

In The Name on the Wrapper someone has been taken advantage of, and Campion works out who and how.

The Hat Trick has a towering snob, the culturally-cringing colonial who's attached himself to the snob's coat-tails, and a neat little con; but you have to follow Campion, not jump ahead of him.

The Question Mark sees an amateur detective of great rectitude discovering something discreditable about his girlfriend's employer's fiancé; this is more humour than detection, really, with an obvious loophole in the evidence, but some of the people are rather good.

The Old Man in the Window is a trick that's been done before, but it's done well here: the Club Fixture died in his favourite chair, and a doctor who was there confirmed it, but he turned up as usual the next day.

In The White Elephant stolen gems are being smuggled out of the country… but how? This is a neat puzzle story, but again you're only given enough pieces to make two-thirds of the solution.

The Frenchman's Gloves has a Family Patriarch visiting from France, but he's left his hotel and not come back. And why did he abandon his gloves?

The Longer View is a fairly straightforward case of kidnapping, leavened by Campion's friend Lance Peering, recently disappointed in love and determined to make a Grand Romance out of the whole business.

Safe As Houses sees Campion dealing with a couple of his barmier relatives. Why, when Great Aunt Charlotte's house was burgled, was nothing taken, but some notepaper for a completely different address was left in a drawer?

The Definite Article has a Society blackmailer with remarkable access to things that he really shouldn't be able to find out. Shades of Mystery Mile and Marsh's Death in a White Tie, though this was two years before that latter.

In The Meaning of the Act an eminent Egyptologist appears to have lost his reason to an exotic dancer. I found this one a bit on the obvious side.

A Matter of Form is the only wartime tale here, and it's not very wartime (first published in May of 1940): a second-rate crook has a Cunning Scheme involving working for the government, and is foiled because he brings in the wrong patsy.

The Danger Point has yet another pretty young thing in distress, yet another jewel robbery, yet more of Campion fixing things behind the scenes… but there's a nasty Society man in this who brings it a bit more three-dimensionality.

Ultimately this collection fails for me because there just isn't enough space to do the things that Allingham's good at, and she falls back on puzzle; when she does let herself go a bit, the puzzle suffers, but the social and personal details become vastly more interesting. These would probably have been better read as originally intended, interlarded with other stories by other authors over a span of several years.

Previous in series: The Fashion in Shrouds | Series: Albert Campion | Next in series: Traitor's Purse

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