RogerBW's Blog

The China Governess, Margery Allingham 27 September 2017

1963 classic English detective fiction; seventeenth of Allingham's novels of Albert Campion. Timothy Kinnit learns, on the eve of his elopement, that he was adopted, and tries to find out more about his parentage; then he becomes a suspect in a suspicious death and a housebreaking.

This book is many things, and the mystery is largely disjoint from the crime. It's fairly clear who must be responsible for the housebreaking, at least, and the death may have been purely accidental: the first death, anyway. Even the question of Timothy's parentage is resolved fairly quickly, though there's some question over exactly what happened in which order. But even so, someone is trying to suppress the information.

"There are other diseases one doesn't want in a parent. Hideous things that only come out in the kids. And there's other things as well. Tendencies, weaknesses."

But before any of that, the happy ending of one of the earlier books is un-done, and this may have biased me against the rest of this book; it feels like a pointless bit of nastiness.

This is a continuation of the "death and decay" tendency that Allingham used most strongly in The Fashion in Shrouds and Coroner's Pidgin: the Kinnits are clearly falling apart (since nobody can keep a cook any more they have horrible meals sent from the local pub); there are people casually described as "not a great intelligence. She's got no mind. She's not with it, really, but she's bright enough over money." There's a man to whom the Kinnits have been so kind that he can't bear it, and he tears them down at every opportunity. This is a museum of fossilised attitudes from just before "the sixties" changed everything.

"As far as I'm concerned it never was." Timothy was irritated but not as angry as he might have been and Mr. Campion, who was listening to the exchange with tremendous interest, eyed him curiously. His next remark was unexpected. "Basil is a peculiar chap," he said. "He doesn't mean these things he says. He just talks to reassure himself. He means us no harm."

It was a patron's point of view and highly mistaken, as Mr. Campion knew for a fact. Suddenly he understood that it must be the Kinnit view of all the Tobermans, the grander family's assessment of a lesser breed, and for a fleeting moment he caught a glimpse of Basil Toberman's genuine grievance. Meanwhile Timothy was still talking in complete innocence and good faith.

But there is a sense that at least it's not all going to come crashing down; some of the young people are still worth a damn, as is Campion himself (though he's mostly in the background here). There's not much Lugg, and no Amanda.

There are coincidences and not a little soap opera, but there's also urban renewal (and the arguments for and against), and most importantly (as so often in Allingham) detailed people who act like the real thing and then grate against each other.

Not a place to start with the series, but a welcome continuation. Followed by The Mind Readers.

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