This is an Albert Campion novel like no other. Margery Allingham had introduced the character in the late 1920s and deployed him in a broad range of books, alternating between whodunits like Police at the Funeral (1931), Death of a Ghost (1934) and Dancers in Mourning (1937) and adventure stories such as Mystery Mile (1930) and Sweet Danger (1933), the latter also introducing Amanda Fitton, something of an author surrogate who would become a recurring character in the Campion saga. She is a crucial presence in Traitor’s Purse, a combination of murder mystery and spy thriller that in many ways feels like what today we would consider a series ‘reboot’, beginning as it does with the protagonist not even knowing who he is …
The following review is offered as part of Kerrie’s 2012 Alphabet of Crime community meme over at her Mysteries in Paradise blog, which has reached the letter T. As the book came out before 1960, this review is also eligible under the guidelines of Bev’s 2012 Vintage Mystery Readers Challenge for which I have selected to read and review at least eight mystery novels on the theme of amnesia published pre-1960. I also offer it for Patti’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme, which this week is hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog.
“Campion did not move. The actor who drives up centre-stage in the middle of the big scene, and who stands there blankly with the urgent silence growing more acute at every second, feels much as he did then”
A man wakes up in hospital suffering from concussion. He can’t remember who he is and what he has done. Overhearing the nurse speak to a policeman outside his room, he is able to deduce that he is being held on a charge of murder after the death of a colleague of the guard. The alleged cop killer gets out of bed, creates a diversion, finds some clothes and goes on the run. Throughout the 1930s Campion had starred in some thrillers and whodunits at a rate of one per year; sfter the outbreak of the Second World War Allingham’s productivity slowed quite considerably (partly due to health issues). Indeed her hero would start to appear in novels only at roughly three to four-yearly intervals from now on. Having re-introduced his lady-love Amanda Fitton in the previous entry, The Fashion in Shrouds (1938), she now comes centre-stage, though initially Albert doesn’t know who she is. Indeed, we are not sure that Albert is even the protagonist until the third chapter (‘Campion’ is not his real name anyway). He steals a car from the hospital but it soon breaks down and it is Amanda who picks him up in the company of an old gentleman named Anscombe. She realises that something is wrong with him, but ultimately blames his apparent reticence on the fact that they have recently broken up as a couple …
“It seemed a pity he had lost half his mind”
They are staying in the home of Lee Aubrey, the principal of ‘The Bridge Institute’, a scientific concern that is leading the war and indeed is so powerful that it could be seen to be leading the whole country. She has fallen for Aubrey, who seems like a nice man, but remains loyal to Albert. They are there on a secret mission – unfortunately she doesn’t really know what it’s about. Later that evening Anscombe is found dead in his garden – it is written off as an accident, which oddly Superintendent Hutch seems prepared to go along with even though Campion realises that the man was clearly murdered, coshed on the head with a blunt instrument. Later that night Hutch fetches Campion – it now becomes clear that the two are working in concert and Campion is taken to a secret room hidden deep in the rocks of this faraway, fairy-take village. Notes are found of the council meeting with reference to 15, which Campion assumes to be the date in a couple of days time. Hutch clearly expects Campion to confide in him so once again Albert is put in the position of leading an operation with absolutely no idea what he is in fact meant to be investigating.
Allingham’s handling of his panic and sense of chagrin at having lost Amanda is handled superbly, especially because it allows the author to deepen her conception of Campion. As he comes to know the man who Amanda and others think he is, Albert himself is not too sure that he is very keen on the cool, calculating and rather unemotional figure they depict. Indeed, from now on Allingham would be presenting an older, wiser, more sensitive detective, one quite far removed from the frivolous character who first appeared (admittedly, almost as a supporting character) back in 1929. It would be a shame to say too much more about the plot though Campion once again is on the run when Hutch comes to suspect that Campion may indeed be an imposter (which, of course, in one sense he is). His memory does slowly return, but this is handled with some subtlety and never as a blinding moment of revelation. The best scenes are like the one in which, as he escapes from the police after slugging Hutch, he makes his way automatically to a safe haven without even realising it – and there finds his oldest and most steadfast of friends without really knowing who they are. On top of this, Allingham creates a wonderful little village full of bizarre and evocative names (‘Nag’s Pykle’ is my favourite) for a story full of legends and portents at a time of very real fear and emergency.
The Campion series:
- The Crime at Black Dudley (1929) (US title: The Black Dudley Murder)
- Mystery Mile (1930)
- Look to the Lady (1931) (US title: The Gyrth Chalice Mystery)
- Police at the Funeral (1931)
- Sweet Danger (1933) (US title: Kingdom of Death/The Fear Sign)
- Death of a Ghost (1934)
- Flowers for the Judge (1936) (US title: Legacy in Blood)
- Mr. Campion: Criminologist (1937) (short stories)
- The Case of the Late Pig (1937)
- Dancers in Mourning (1937) (US title: Who Killed Chloe?)
- The Fashion in Shrouds (1938)
- Mr. Campion and Others (1939) (short stories)
- Traitor’s Purse (1941) (US title: The Sabotage Murder Mystery)
- Coroner’s Pidgin (1945) (US title: Pearls Before Swine)
- The Casebook of Mr Campion (1947) (short stories)
- More Work for the Undertaker (1948)
- The Tiger in the Smoke (1952)
- The Beckoning Lady (1955) (US title: The Estate of the Beckoning Lady)
- Hide My Eyes (1958) (US titles: Tether’s End/Ten Were Missing)
- The China Governess (1962)
- The Mind Readers (1965)
- Cargo of Eagles (1968) (completed by Philip Youngman Carter)
More of a wartime spy thriller than a classic whodunit, this is a superb adventure and one that forever changed Albert Campion into a new kind of hero, one that we would however not encounter again until the war was over. Allingham was a great writer and this is one of her best books.