Coroner's Pidgin by Margery Allingham

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Coroner's Pidgin by Margery Allingham

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Category: Crime
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: An Albert Campion story from the queen of crime writers. Written in the nineteen forties it's still a good read more than sixty years on, with an excellent plot and characterisation.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 240 Date: September 2006
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 0099492784

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In the closing months of the Second World War Albert Campion returns from a secret mission which has kept him overseas for three years. He visits his London home and plans to have a bath before catching a train out of the city that evening. Whilst he's bathing, his manservant, Lugg and an aristocratic lady carry a woman's body into his bedroom. Campion would prefer not to become involved - he has a train to catch after all - but he's prevented from leaving the city and has to apply himself to solving the mystery of the woman's death and of the disappearing art treasures.

Forget Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy L Sayers. Forget too the modern writers - Ruth Rendell and P D James included - the queen of crime writers is Margery Allingham. She died in 1965 and this book was written in 1945 but it's still got all that it takes to be a good crime story. The plot appears deceptively simple. We have one body, surplus to requirements and one aristocratic lady anxious to dispose of it but suffering some forgetfulness about exactly where she found it. Her son, Lord Carados, general all-round good egg and flying ace seems to attract a great deal of attention from the police whilst apparently doing his best to help them. Layer after layer peels off the plot and there's still plenty to go at.

The characters are endearing, but this is a plot-driven book rather than character-driven. There's no indulgence here about Campion's personal life. The police - Oates, Yeo and Holly - are individual but serve the plot rather than dominating it. I liked Campion with his quirky sense of humour and rather understated intelligence. He manipulates the plot rather than leading it. There's a satisfying list of suspects, all of whom are rounded individuals. I was convinced that I'd worked out the name of the murderer, but I was wrong. There was a satisfying denouement with a nice little twist right at the end of the story.

The word pictures of London right at the end of the war were evocative. Whole streets had been reduced to rubble with people living in any part of their house which might still be standing. Campion's manservant, Lugg is in the Local Defence Volunteers - and he's keeping a pig in a lean-to in the middle of an aristocratic square in the centre of the city. Carrying a torch to find your way around is a matter of necessity because of the blackout. There's a sense of people working together but also of the distance between those who know that there's a war on and those who have been fighting it.

The book is refreshing for its time in that women are not portrayed as inferior characters. Almost without exception the women in the book are feisty, individual and very much in charge if their own destinies.

I was in my teens when I first read Margery Allingham and even coming back to her after, er, rather a long time I was still struck by the clarity of the writing. It's as though she's bought 1000 words for three shillings and sixpence and wants to use them as economically as possible. Every word counts. The style of writing seems a little dated these days but it's still very easy, compulsive reading. Consider this description of the pub being used as a coroner's court:

... and the landlord had done what he could. Nothing could remove the comforting smell of beer, of course, but the narrow white scrubbed tables had been rearranged, the spittoons set inconveniently under them and about seventy-five of the ash-trays put away.

It's a perfect before-and-after picture.

Albert Campion is one of the original 'series' detectives. One of the very first was Michael Innes' Inspector Appleby, with the first book in that series being Death at the President's Lodging. It's a more demanding and ultimately less-satisfying read than Coroner's Pidgin though.

This book was kindly sent to The Bookbag by Vintage Books who are in the process of reissuing a series of Margery Allingham's Albert Campion books.

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Jill said:

My mother worships at the shrine of Marjery Allingham dontchaknow.

Sue said:

She's a wise woman. Allingham is much under-rated.

lechateau1962 said:

One of my favourite crime authors and very much underrated. A good basic mystery/crime and no gore which many of odays authors rely on.