Mystery Mile by Margery Allingham

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Mystery Mile by Margery Allingham

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Category: Crime (Historical)
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A murder mystery with an understated humour. Think Agatha Christie meets P G Wodehouse and wins. Great fun.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: November 2004
Publisher: Vintage
External links: Author's website
ISBN: {{{isbn}}}

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On a transatlantic liner, an American points out Crowdy Lobbett and predicts that he will have been murdered within a fortnight. Indeed he places a bet on it. It seems like a safe bet: retired Judge Lobbett has been the subject of four near misses so far: four attempts on his life that have misfired and killed someone close to him. His children have persuaded him to take a trip to England in an attempt to keep him somewhat safer, for a while at least.

In the very first chapter, however, an unfortunate white mouse proves that they may be on a hiding to nothing. The mouse, it transpires, owned by one Albert Campion whose business card reads Coups executed. Nothing sordid, vulgar or plebeian. Deserving Cases Preferred. Police no object.

It's not very long before Marlow Lobbett is calling on Campion's services to see if they can trace the mysterious head of the Simister Gang and put him out of business – only then will Lobbett senior finally be safe. One more attempt on the man's life that very day is sufficient for Campion to want to be in on it.

Albert Campion is said to have been created as a parody of Dorothy L Sayers' aristocratic detective Lord Peter Wimsey, but I find it unlikely that it was that considered. He starts out with only the vaguest of back-stories which Allingham then developed over a series of 19 novels, including that completed by her husband following her death, and numerous short stories.

Mystery Mile is the second of the novels, first published in 1930. All that we really know of our hero at this point is that he is of blue blood but has some kind of shady past. His sidekick Lugg, is well named – a mountain of a man, with perhaps more brain than his physique might suggest and a criminal record to match. While Lugg has all the wrong connections in the seedy underworld, it seems that Campion has quite a few of his own.

To make up for it though, Campion's alter ego – whose real name we do not know – clearly has a few of the right ones, not least among the police, which in his line of work is going to come in handy.

The Mystery Mile of the title is a decaying estate on a near-island off the marshy Suffolk coast. It is the kind of estate much beloved by writers in the golden age of fiction: a manor house, a village where everyone knows everyone else, nosy postmasters, servants and general gossips – but all good salt-of-the-marshland folk that'd do anything for them at the big 'ouse. And of course the local Rector whose position is half-way between the locals and the aristo's.

The estate is in the family. Indeed, it is Campion's family seat, currently in the hands of his nephew who still lives there with his sister, but who in true hard-times of the interwar years needs to let it out or find some other way of making money. The need to let, gives the perfect excuse to squirrel away the ex-Judge whilst investigations commence.

Of course it's not going to be that easy… an art dealer from London arrives, by arrangement, to value a painting… but Lobbett is nowhere to be found. The game's afoot.

Deliberate parody or not, the one thing to be said about the Campion books is that they are great fun. Campion himself is of wishy-washy appearance: thin, blond and bland. He cultivates a special blend of idiotic speech worthy of Bertie Wooster's most fatuous co-conspirators, rambling on in joyful non-sequiturs, to hide the sharpness of his approach. In reality he thinks quickly, acts authoritatively, and isn't afraid of a ruckus when required.

As a piece it is of its time. The story-telling is very much in the vein of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers. The violence isn't over-played – but isn't avoided either – but the point of the thing is the puzzle, the detection. Like many of Christie's stories, and unlike, say, Conan Doyle's, it's a bit of an unfair game for the reader because we're not given all of the information available to the protagonist. On the other hand some of the fairly obvious baddies are innocently 'missed' for the sake of the plot.

And the plot is the thing. It's well-crafted, rolls along at the pace of spring tide in a storm, and keeps the pages turning. It gives nothing away to say it will turn out all right in the end. Mostly. That's the nature of the genre. Even the specifics of exactly 'how' all right are sign-posted quite early on, but just to keep you interested there is the appropriate allowance of red herrings, local myth and rumour, policeman useful and inept as required. Unlike Christie or Sayers, though, it is told with tongue firmly in cheek. I don't know who Allingham claimed as her influencers but Wodehouse tinkles quietly in the background, not least in the absurd names she gives her characters.

A simple joy to read.

If you enjoyed this why not go back one and start at the beginning with The Crime at Black Dudley – which isn't the best in the series, but is probably the best place to start. You might also enjoy Sweet Danger by Margery Allingham.

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