Margery Allingham, generally considered to be one of the Golden Age's "mystery queens," had the agility to write many different kinds of crime stories, almost all of them featuring her amateur detective character, Albert Campion. Some of her books are out-and-out thrillers, while others are carefully plotted puzzle mysteries. And then there is The Case of the Late Pig which is rather hard to classify, as Mr. Campion investigates the death of a singularly unattractive bully named Pig Peters, whose funeral Campion apparently had attended several months before Peters's death. It's a very short book and it has the distinction of being the only one of the Campion adventures to be narrated by Campion himself. Here's what I had to say about it on the Classic Mysteries podcast nearly a decade ago:
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Very few people seemed to mourn the death of Pig Peters. Perhaps that’s not too surprising, as he was a school bully grown up. Still, the funeral was duly held, Pig was buried, and everyone went home. The situation became a bit more complicated, however, several months later, when someone was murdered in the village of Kepesake. You see, the victim, apparently, was Pig Peters. As very few people really can be said to have died twice, it was something of a problem for Albert Campion, in Margery Allingham’s 1937 novel, The Case of the Late Pig.
We’ve discussed some of Margery Allingham’s golden age detective stories before, but The Case of the Late Pig is different for a couple of reasons. First of all, it is quite short; even though it has been published as a separate book, it is really only a little over novella length – 138 pages in the copy I have been reading. For another point, the story is narrated by Albert Campion himself – and I believe it’s the only one of Allingham’s books or short stories where that happens.
The Case of the Late Pig is an excellent story. While some of the books featuring Campion tend to be more thriller than mystery, this book is very much in the classic puzzle mode. Let’s take a closer look at the plot:
The book begins with Campion reading a newspaper announcement of the funeral of Pig Peters. Campion had been at school with Peters – who was very much a bully in those days. He was sufficiently unpleasant, in fact, for Campion to see no reason to attend the funeral – until he gets a peculiar anonymous letter, which rouses his interest. He goes to the funeral, where he observes a number of people attending, most of whom will play significant roles in the story as it unfolds, and then he returns home.
Nothing else happens – to Campion’s knowledge, at any rate – for the next five months. Then, he receives a phone call from a friend who happens to be the Chief Constable for the area around the town of Kepesake: there has been a fairly nasty murder and Campion’s help is needed. When Campion answers the call, he is taken to view the body and discovers that it appears to be Pig Peters – the man whose funeral he had attended five months earlier.
Campion struggles to figure out what might be happening, and how it could be that the one-time bully (who had been up to some very nasty bullying indeed in Kepesake) should turn up dead twice. He receives more hints in additional anonymous letters. But he realizes that there seems to be no way the murder could have happened – yes, it is an impossible crime story – and that that problem dwarfs the several other difficulties Campion and the police are having as they attempt to unravel the story of the murder – and whatever other crimes may have been going on.
There’s a good deal more, but let it suffice to say that Pig Peters turns out to be a thoroughly despicable character – and yet one whose murder must be solved and his double death explained. And Campion finds that his own life will be very much in jeopardy before he is able to solve the mystery.
As I indicated earlier, Allingham plays quite fairly with the reader, providing clues and even allowing Campion to call attention to some key points, although – as with any good classic mystery – it is up to the reader to interpret the clues correctly. It is also true that, because we are dealing with such a short book, there aren’t all that many possible culprits, and the astute reader may be able to guess the criminal’s identity simply by elimination. But that’s probably an unfair criticism, and it shouldn’t take away from your enjoyment of a fine mystery. That’s especially true as Allingham writes, from Campion’s perspective, with enough light humor to make some really nasty events palatable. For example, here’s Campion’s reaction when he hears of Pig Peters’ death the first time. Campion remembers Peters as the school bully –
Pig Peters was a major evil in our lives at that time. He ranked with injustice, the devil and Latin Prose. When Pig Peters fed the junior study fire with my collection of skeleton leaves I earnestly wished him dead, and, remembering the incident that morning at breakfast, I was mildly surprised to find that I still did.
I enjoy that – it is right in keeping with Campion’s character, and, unfortunately, very much in keeping with that of Pig Peters, too.
The Case of the Late Pig, by Margery Allingham, remains in print, and your favorite book dealer should have no difficulties finding a copy for you.
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You can listen to the original podcast by clicking here.
Next week: The Bar on the Seine (also published as The Two-Penny Bar), by Georges Simenon.