RogerBW's Blog

Coroner's Pidgin, Margery Allingham 30 January 2017

1945 classic English detective fiction; twelfth of Allingham's novels of Albert Campion. Back in London after three years overseas on mysterious war work, Campion just wants to catch a train; but Lugg and an unknown lady turn up in his flat with a corpse. US vt Pearls Before Swine.

Where The Fashion in Shrouds showed a style of living that was reaching its end, Coroner's Pidgin shows one that's got there. The household of Johnny Carados is stuck in an age that has ended, in which immense deference is shown to people just because they are the right sort of people, and they've grown to expect it; both the Bright Young Things and the ageing Edwardians are now dislocated from society, and whatever comes next things will never be the same again. Johnny's elderly mother thinks nothing of moving the corpse to minimise embarrassment to her son on the eve of his wedding, or of lying to the police about it, and as for Wing Commander Lord Carados himself:

"Oh yes; well, we got rid of Mrs. Moppet in the end, or rather Gwenda did. You never had an affair with her, did you Johnny?"

The final question came out directly without affectation, and for a moment they were all transported into that other world before the war when little affairs were fashionable, and no one seemed to have very much to do. The query appeared to startle Carados.

"Why, no," he said. "No. Of course not. I may have taken her out to lunch once or twice, you know."

There's certainly a murder to be solved, but it leads into a much larger criminal scheme, involving an enemy plot laid in the early days of the war that seems unlikely to end well now that the Germans are losing. And it seems more and more to be pointing at Johnny Carados himself.

"No, no. Spies are all right. They're regulation." Oates was impatient. "We catch theirs, and they catch ours. Spies are almost clean. No, the men I'm after are the Judases. The men who kiss and serve and sell; the lads who sit snug in one way of life and still serve the other. The men who don't know what's important. We've still got them here, and when we've won we'll still have them waiting to do it again. They're the chaps I'm after. My hands are on a whole bunch of them and I'll get the lot if it's the last thing I do. This is personal, Campion; I hate those blokes."

All this does mean that the opening is excessively cluttered, with rather too many people introduced in the first few pages; it's only later that they become usefully distinguishable, except for one who has nothing to do except be a gay stereotype and, near the end, to deliver a single useful piece of information that nobody's thought to ask him before, and that blows the whole thing open. There's one red herring that seems, in retrospect, entirely implausible. As a mystery, well, I got half of it, but the rest only works in literary terms ("who is the person in this book who fits this profile", as opposed to any of the other people doubtless in London who would) and I try to avoid using those tools.

Really what I value here is less the mystery and more the atmosphere. A reference to the Russian Army as a by-word for speed. Houses not repaired since the Blitz. Food, of course.

"Forget it," said Mr. Campion firmly. "Look, Susan, this is the first food I've had since I got home. So far we've had some lovely horse, and this looks like beautiful rice shape with raw medlars. Let's eat it, and forget our own and other people's troubles just for half an hour, shall we?"

And the policeman's job in wartime.

"We nabbed the bloke just at the right moment," said Oates. "Caught him with a house full of incriminating stuff. He was untidy, that was the thing which damned him. He was the only agent I've ever known who wasn't meticulous. He left papers in his collar drawer, even under the bed; I suppose he thought he was safe. He'd been over here thirty-five years, and had a house and a little block-making business in the City, and he'd changed his name to something good and Scots and all his dear old pals of the eight-fifteen swore he was as loyal as a Trafalgar Square lion. But he hadn't a hope, of course. He died in the Tower, very bravely, really. He had some deep emotional dream about castles and counts and kings and mountains and what not, but all in Rumania, unfortunately."

And in the end Allingham's trick of getting the exact right phrase carries it over many of the other problems.

Campion glanced towards the drive. There was still no sign of police cars. The gardener on duty by the area had his back towards the dreadful sight within it, and was rubbing his neck with a coloured handkerchief. Neither Holly nor his quarry had yet appeared. It was all very sunny and ugly and comfortable.

Followed by More Work for the Undertaker.

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