RogerBW's Blog

Cargo of Eagles, Margery Allingham 02 November 2017

1968 classic English detective fiction; nineteenth and last of Allingham's novels of Albert Campion, finished after her death by her husband. A hamlet on the Essex marshes is keeping secrets, and apparently some of them are worth murdering for.

In some ways this calls back to the early Campions, in which he's off-stage for much of the time and doesn't tell the supposed protagonist what's actually going on. Mortimer Kelsey, an American historian, has the primary viewpoint, and is one of the designated Young Lovers. (Though one starts to feel that even Allingham was getting bored with them – though perhaps not as bored as Ngaio Marsh must have been – as there's at least some slight doubt as to the course of the romance.)

Morty, sliding a glance at her, realized not without surprise that she was a grown woman, competent, finely tempered and not quite the beleaguered sylph he had been picturing in his daydreams. The thought depressed him and he drove in silence for a twisting mile.

Because this is a modern world; yes, it may have mods and rockers, and a sense that all the heroes and even the villains have got old and tired, but it also has an unreasonably beautiful lady doctor in it, and maybe the existence of unreasonably beautiful lady doctors is worth everything else. She's inherited a house in Saltey, and has been getting threatening letters suggesting she sell up; then the lawyer who's been helping sort out the inheritance is shot. And there's a motorcycle gang coming around and causing trouble, and a released convict whom the police have lost track of who might have left a treasure somewhere in the area…

Philip Youngman Carter, Allingham's husband, is known to have finished this book after her death, though just how much is his work is not public information; it's not clear just what's late Allingham going a bit off her game and what's Carter, but the start is very slow going with no particular reason to care about any of the characters. Some of them do develop more interest later, but this really isn't much of a detective story; Campion knows what the treasure is, and about the relationships between some of the principals, but doesn't bother to tell anyone else, so the reader is mostly along for the ride as a series of disturbing and threatening incidents happen but don't seem to make any sense.

Someone didn't know their colours: "a silk scarf of such virulent puce that it glowed as if radioactive" is surely meant to be some kind of pink or mauve, not the dull brown that puce actually is. (Well, I suppose they might have been thinking of the 1930s American dull-pink version.)

It's all right, but doubtless not the book by which Allingham would have wished to be remembered. Carter wrote two more Campion novels (Mr Campion's Farthing and Mr Campion's Falcon); I haven't been able to lay hands on them easily, as they seem distinctly less popular than the books by Allingham herself. He in turn died leaving notes for Mr Campion's Farewell, which was written in 2014 by Mike Ripley, who's gone on to write three further Campion books; I have no particular interest in these. There are also various collections of short stories, some quite hard to find. But as far as my reading of the Classics of Crime is concerned, Campion is complete.

He's an interesting protagonist, starting from unpromising origins but immediately usurping Allingham's intended series-hero. He vacillates between being a government agent and getting into scrapes on his own account. Later books rather drift away from puzzle-mystery and into thriller, and the obligatory romantic connection is never used as well as it might be (though The Beckoning Lady makes up for most of what's missing in the others). For my money, The Fashion in Shrouds is probably the best of the detective stories, but The Tiger in the Smoke is well worth a look for something a bit more thrillery.

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