RogerBW's Blog

Traitor's Purse, Margery Allingham 11 December 2016

1940 classic English detective fiction; eleventh of Allingham's novels of Albert Campion. An amnesiac Campion knows he was in the middle of dealing with a truly serious plot… but what is it all about, and whom can he trust? US vt The Sabotage Murder Mystery.

Even if you're familiar with Campion's adventures to date, this book starts off in an unsettling and disorientating manner. Campion has been knocked on the head, has no idea who he is, and has only vague flashes of association to work by. And while Amanda Fitton is there to help, as usual he hasn't bothered to tell her any of the details of what's going on. (One may hope that in the future he finally learns better.) And she's breaking their long and perhaps not-terribly-serious engagement to marry someone else – which is the precipitating factor in his not telling her about the amnesia. I find that decision a bit of a hump to get over, but it's necessary to the story, and it does at least make sense to Campion himself at the time:

He could hardly tell her now. To reveal his helplessness at this juncture would be both to plead weakness and to appeal to her pity, and to appeal to pity is very loathsome in love. He was appalled to discover how much love there was to be reckoned with. They seemed somehow to have achieved the mutual confidence of marriage without it, and now at a stroke it was destroyed; now, when probably for the first time he was realizing how much he had come to depend upon it.

But Allingham has the courage of her convictions, and maintains the amnesia until about four-fifths of the way through the book. It does mean that if you're hoping for a cosy Campion story you're going to be disappointed, but it's also an effective way of showing what's at the core of his personality. And indeed how ingrained some of his mannerisms are:

Campion had intended to sound ignorant, but even he was unprepared for the degree of fatuous idiocy he managed to present.

Allingham does veer somewhat into the realms of science fiction, with "a torch no larger than a rifle cartridge" (really?) and an explosive of which

"Half a teaspoonful can make as much mess as a bucketful of T.N.T."

which frankly puts it in the class of inefficient nuclear weapons rather than anything plausibly chemical. (I make that about 3,600 times the power of reference T.N.T.) There's clearly a war on, but it doesn't feel terribly serious yet: there are blackouts and A.R.P. wardens but no air raids.

The essential plot – which I recalled from reading this book many years ago, though all the details had gone – does by coincidence match a real German plan of about this period, though the Germans had put far less thought into it than Allingham did. (I won't link it directly, but the Wikipedia page for the book gives details as well as laying out the whole of the plot.)

On the romantic side, this is much closer kin to Gaudy Night than to Death in a White Tie, mixing the romance and detection closely rather than jumping from subject to subject. Indeed, it does seem to have taken a knock on the head and subsequent recovery for Campion to see what had been obvious to readers for some time:

For one thing he was acutely aware that Amanda was beside him. Her share in his recent nightmare was very vivid in his mind. He remembered, too, exactly how he had reacted to it. In his lonely and terrified ignorance she had emerged as a necessity, a lifeline, heavensent and indispensable. Now, with the full recollection of a long and sophisticated bachelor life behind him, and the most gigantic disaster of all time looking just ahead, he was startled to find that she remained just that; static and unalterable, like the sun or the earth.

Overall this is an off-centre but distinctly satisfying story. I find myself surprised that it's never been filmed. The one weak spot for me is the way the revelation of the villain's identity solves a completely separate problem; and I wouldn't want to read this without having first read Sweet Danger and The Fashion in Shrouds, because much of the emotional impact would be lost. But even so it's good stuff.

It is true that at this moment Britain depends practically entirely on her faith in herself and on her own internal stability. If that could be destroyed suddenly, by a single stroke, there would come confusion, exhaustion, and finally decay.

What a good thing that couldn't happen today, eh? Followed by Coroner's Pidgin.

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