Margery Allingham is generally considered one of the leading "crime queens" of England's Golden Age of Detective Fiction, an assessment with which I agree. (This will probably earn me some pointed comments from friends and fellow bloggers who make no secret of their dislike for Allingham.) While most of her books feature the aristocratic Albert Campion as their primary investigator, the books are by no means easy to categorize. They range from books that are mostly-thriller to first-rate detective stories. Among the latter, you will find Police at the Funeral, originally published in 1931. It was the fourth book to feature Campion, and, I think, the first real detective story by Allingham in which Campion plays a leading role. Here's what I had to say about it (slightly edited) when I reviewed it in 2007:
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Socrates Close is a strange house. Even though the year is 1931, the Faraday family is ruled with an iron hand by Great Aunt Caroline Faraday, who runs her house as if it were still late Victorian England. So when the murders begin, this very much out of place and out of date family does not know which way to turn. Enter Albert Campion...
Margery Allingham was another of the great novelists of Britain’s so-called “Golden Age” of mystery stories. So before I tell you more about Police at the Funeral, perhaps I should talk a bit about her detective character, Albert Campion – because he is a most unusual character, even for British detective stories.
We are never really told very much about Campion’s background. Like some other detectives of the era, he appears to be the younger son of a noble family. There are hints in Police at the Funeral that the family may in fact be an offshoot of the English royal family itself, but that is really not resolved.
What we do know is that Campion manages to hide a very sharp mind behind a very bland demeanor. Allingham refers throughout the book – throughout Campion’s career, for that matter – to his affected look of genial idiocy, his ability to efface himself and make himself practically invisible in a group, while he quietly absorbs all the information unwittingly supplied by those who are conversing in his presence. At one point early in the book, after Campion has made what seems to be a remarkably fatuous comment, he is questioned by one of the characters about his behavior. He responds this way:
“Am I a serious practitioner or someone playing the fool? I know that feeling. But I assure you I’m a first-class professional person.”
For an instant, the pale eyes behind the enormous spectacles were as grave as her own.
“I’m deadly serious,” he continued. “My amiable idiocy is mainly natural, but it’s also my stock-in-trade. I’m honest, tidy, dark as next year’s Derby-winner, and I’ll do all I can. Hadn’t you better let me hear all about it?”
Now that’s pretty typical for Campion. I must admit that there are times when reading Allingham’s novels – particularly the early ones – that I find the amiable idiocy overdone. In a lot of ways, it’s reminiscent of early Lord Peter Wimsey – a bit too precious and overdone. But by Police at the Funeral, her fourth Campion novel, Allingham had developed her hero’s character to the point where he is both very human and very likeable.
As for the situation which Campion finds in this novel, it is an interesting portrait of an upper-class and – even in 1931 – very out of date English family. There is Great Aunt Caroline Faraday, who runs the house, as I said, as though it were still the Victorian era. She commands her children and other relatives – even though they are middle-aged and beyond, they must live under and by her rules. There is an incredible amount of friction and tension among the family members. Eventually, there is a murder…then a second murder. And Campion finds himself on the scene, acting as a sort of buffer between Great Aunt Caroline and the world of police, journalists, and lawyers. Eventually, he uncovers a fantastic plot, with truly terrifying implications. These are crimes that probably could have occurred in no other family – and no other house than their home, called Socrates Close. Listen to this marvelous description, as the family lawyer speaks to Campion:
There they are, a family forty years out of date, all vigorous, energetic people by temperament, all, save for the old lady, without their fair share of brains, and herded together in that great mausoleum of a house, tyrannized over by one of the most astounding personalities I’ve ever encountered. Imagine it, Campion, there are stricter rules in that house than you or I were ever forced to keep at our schools. And there is no escape.”
One of the reasons why I enjoy Allingham is that she is a fine writer. She can evoke a mood, or outline a character, efficiently. Let me give you another example – some of Campion’s first impressions of the house, Socrates Close. He is in the breakfast room, talking with another member of the family.
There was no cosiness in the breakfast room. The lights were not shaded, but sprouted unadorned from a brass water-lily, floating upside-down in the white expanse of ceiling, and their cold blaze presented an atmosphere of hygienic chill which even the bright fire could not dispel.
Mr. Campion began to understand Marcus’s remark of the previous evening: “If I lived in that house, I might easily feel like murder myself.” That atmosphere of restraint, which is so racking in adolescence, was here applied to age, and Campion experienced a fear of stumbling upon some weak spot where, beneath the rigid bond of repression, human nature had begun to ferment, to decay, to become vile. There was no telling what manner of secret lay hidden in the great house rising up over his head, yet he was acutely conscious of its existence.
I think that’s a fine example of the Allingham style. So it is worth noting that, by the time we have finished with Police at the Funeral, we know – and generally like – the members of this peculiar family. Even the less attractive members are rendered understandable, and we can see why Campion – and others – are willing to do so much to help them try to escape from the strange plot which seems to surround them.
I do have to add a cautionary note, as I have had to do on some of the other mysteries from this era: there are reflections here of racial attitudes which we find very unacceptable now, some 75 years after the book first appeared. Those attitudes, in fact, are central to one of the subplots that play out in this book. If you are offended by such things, you are warned – but I would hope that the book’s merits are sufficient to get you over that problem. I think Police at the Funeral is one of Margery Allingham’s best books.
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Next week: Evidence of Things Seen, by Elizabeth Daly.