TRAITOR’S PURSE (1941) by Margery Allingham

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.

***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in 2012 Alphabet of Crime, 2012 Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge, Albert Campion, Amnesia, Crime Fiction Alphabet, Film Noir, Friday's Forgotten Book, Margery Allingham, Scene of the crime and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

46 Responses to TRAITOR’S PURSE (1941) by Margery Allingham

  1. westwoodrich says:

    This is second only to The Tiger in the Smoke in my Allingham top ten (not that I’ve really thought through numbers 3-10, except that The Mind Readers definitely does not make the cut). The Bridge is a brilliant conception, and I read somewhere that it turned out after the war that Germany actually had a plan similar to the one Campion uncovers. The car drive after his hospital escape is particularly memorable.

    I’ve got the edition with the rooftop picture. That Vintage cover is a little bit of a spoiler…

    • Thanks for that – sounds like we’re in pretty close agreement about the Campion adventures as i agree with you about The Mind Readers – well, yes, I suppose that cover is ever so slightly, but it is so generic … now you’ve got me worrying! I do like the second cover which is from the JM Dent edition with an intro by Jessica Mann, which is the one I have (given to me as a birthday present by my my late Auntie Joan 23 years ago yesterday!) but the scan is less good …

  2. Colin says:

    I’ve only read a few of the early Campion books, but they didn’t do it for me for one reason or another. I’m inclined to think Allingham may not be my kind of writer, but then again I did enjoy Tiger in the Smoke. Perhaps I should give her a chance again?

    • Tiger in the Smoke is easily her best book and there is a big difference between the book she wrote before war broke out and the later ones. Traitor’s Purse is a very Hitchcockian thriller – did you ever see the Peter Davison series from 1989-90? It only lasted a couple of years but he was perfectly cast (as was Brian Glover as Lugg and the very luscious Lysette Anthony as Amanda) and I really wish it had gone on for a couple more as it would certainly have caught up with this book.

      • Colin says:

        Yes, I’ve read a few of the pre-war efforts and they just weren’t my cup of tea. This one does sound more interesting though.

        I remember the series being shown but I don’t believe I ever saw it.

        • Peter Davison was I believe very well cast, being able to play both the frivolous side of Campion and the darker or anyway more shaded character within. The show tried hard to balance whodunits and adventure stories – didn’t always manage to get the tone right, but mostly it did succeeded. One of the better heritage detective shows I always thought – very inexpensive to get on DVD now thankfully.

      • westwoodrich says:

        I agree – it’s as if she were a completely different writer. The reboot analogy works for me.

        After Allingham’s death, her husband Philip Youngman Carter continued the series and they took on a very downbeat Le Carré flavour.

  3. Srivalli says:

    I am not sure if I have read any book by Margery Allingham. But Campion names sounds familiar, I vaguely remember misreading it as Champion a long time back. I love Hitchcockian thrillers, I will look for Traitor’s Purse.

    • Thanks Srivalli – the Campion name (taken from the flower) is in the first book given as a pseudonym as the character may even be connected to royalty but has in fact lots of connection in the underworld (his manservant Lugg is very much a reformed criminal) – Allingham was one of the writers that managed to find new formulae for the detective in the post-war work though this dead mean that quite often Campion would get sidelined a bit – this is a case in point in Tiger in the Smoke, her best book but in which he has only a supporting role. In the movie version Campion was in fact removed entirely.

  4. mikeripley says:

    SPOILER ALERT: The Nazi scheme in Traitor’s Purse is based on a plan by the SS called ‘Operation Bernhard’ which Margery Allingham could not possibly have known about in 1941! (Len Deighton mentioned it in some detail in Horse Under Water in 1963.)
    In another life, whilst working in the brewing industry, I was invited to Kersey in Suffolk to advise on the filming of the “Campion” episode Look To The Lady. Well, technically, to advise on the accuracy of the set-dressing of the pub that was to play the part of The Three Drummers, which features in the book. The producers wanted an absolutely accurate pub for Suffolk in 1931 but the Props Department had spent a lot of the budget bringing in (genuine, unopened) bottles of pale ale which were of the right date, but from a small Scottish brewery over 500 miles away from darkest Suffolk… Consequenetly all scenes in The Three Drummers are shot AWAY from the bar and its impressive display of bottles and the set-dresser didn’t speak to me all day! Peter Davison and Brian Glover were absolutely charming though. So was the BBC producer until my wife pointed out that the flowers in the pub’s hanging baskets had not been introduced into Britain until 1947. Oddly enough, we were not invited on set for the rest of the series…..

    • Fantastic stuff Mike, thanks for that. I remain in awe and envy of your crime adventures! I loved the TV show when it was on and have always considered Davison a seriously underrated actor. Look to the Lady was adapted by the late, great Alan Plater – here’s the opening to that story:

      • Jeff Flugel says:

        That’s a fascinating behind-the-scenes story, Mike! How cool is that, you got to meet the man who played Campion, Tristan Farnon and Doctor Who (and of course Brian Glover, who is amazing as Lugg)! Like Sergio, I’m a big fan of CAMPION the series and Davison’s portrayal, and have long decried the fact that it only lasted for 2 series. I really wish they could have gotten through the rest of the Allingham-penned novels…

        • Mike treads where mere mortals like us fear to! I try not to play fantasy football with film and TV as it is too frustrating but with Campion I really wish it had lasted longer – I could see why the Inspector Alleyn Mysteries for instance didn’t go beyond 2 series as it was just a bot too generic and Patrick Malahide slightly uneasy in the title role, but Davison was perfectly cast and the show was a little our of the usual rut – trouble is, costume dramas are so expensive to make that the margin of error is bound to shrink accordingly (incorrect bottles of wine notwithstanding).

  5. Margot Kinberg says:

    Sergio – Excellent review, for which thanks. I like this one very much not just for the depth that Allingham gives to Campion’s character but for the solid weaving together of the main plot and the sub-plot featuring Amanda. And yes, I like the village setting too.

    • Thanks Margot – I tried not to effuse too much as I am such a sucker for Allingham’s book in general, but I do think this is rather special. The loss of memory plot has an additional resonance when you know that in later life the authors underwent ECT and did also suffer from some memory loss as a result.

  6. TracyK says:

    A couple of years ago I got an old (not great condition but still has dust jacket) copy of Mr. Campion’s Lady with this novel, plus Sweet Danger and The Fashion in Shrouds, and I have re-read the first, but not Fashion in Shrouds and Traitor’s Purse. Been wanting to do that and this pushes me further in that direction. Maybe this year for the Vintage Mystery Challenge. Traitor’s Purse was my favorite of the Campion series when I first read it.

    Strange, I don’t even remember reading Tiger in the Smoke, and I know I read all of them. But that is fine, it will be like new to me.

    • Thanks TracyK – for me, Jack Havoc and the fog-shrouded London of Tiger in the Smoke are wonderfully well realised creations, truly some of the best things Allingham ever achieved.

  7. Skywatcher says:

    It’s an absolutely superb book. The emergence of Campion as a more mature character is mirrored by Allingham’s own growing feeling that the brittle cynicism of the 20s and 30s was wrong, and that there were some things worth dying for. It is beautifully structured, as at times we are in the same shoes as Campion and don’t know what is going on, but at others we are ahead of him, and recognise his old friends. I love a lot of the earlier books, but I do feel that this, and the three novels immediately following it (CORONER’S PIDGIN/MORE WORK FOR THE UNDERTAKER/TIGER IN THE SMOKE) are very special, and form a fascinating picture of Britain during the war and afterwards. I came to the books from the TV series, and now have them all on DVD. It is a shame that the only did the eight stories, and I wonder if BIG FINISH, who produce his audio DOCTOR WHO stories, can’t be persuaded to adapt the rest of the series on CD.

    • 100% in agreement with you on this Skywatcher – Davison did do audiobooks of some of the later book nearer the time of the show. Like you, I came to them from the show (and Roy Baker’s excellent movie of Tiger) – Big Finish would be ideal. The rights would probably be a problem but it would be great – it’s a shame of course that Brian Glover is gone but I think Anthony has even done some work for them in the past – I’d buy those audios in a heartbeat and you can see how well they could play as serials on BBC4 Extra too – I’ll start lobbying them!

  8. Ignorance time, Sergio. I didn’t know of Margery Allingham’s existence until now and I say to myself, “What the heck am I reading?” A “wartime spy thriller than a classic whodunit” certainly appeals to my bibliophilic senses. I also enjoyed reading Mike Ripley’s spoiler. By the way, after reading your review I searched the internet for some more information about Allingham and her work and came across a nice piece by A.S. Byatt titled “Why I love Margery Allingham” over at “The Telegraph”. I think you’ll like it, Sergio. You can read it at

  9. Yvette says:

    Thanks for this, Sergio. I’ve never read any of the Allingham books – after attempting a couple of the early ones which I just couldn’t get into and because I didn’t like the television series. But I’ve read some positive stuff from Allingham enthusiasts and I’m determined to read a couple. Maybe this is the one for me. It sounds terrific.

    • Shame you didn’t go for the TV series, which I did love though I realise that the light and frivolous tone of some of the episodes (especially Look to the Lady, Mystery Mile and Sweet Danger) is not the show at its best. The Tiger in the Smoke really is a masterpiece though – I think you’d love it.
      Tiger in the Smoke

  10. Steve Lewis says:

    I read this book for the first and only time over 50 years ago. Other than your review and the earlier comments, all I remember of it are those first few chapters. They knocked my socks off then, and it’s good to know they still hold up today.

  11. Anne H says:

    Traitor’s Purse is probably my favourite Allingham, along with The Tiger in the Smoke and Sweet Danger. I’ve read all of these several times, and read and in most cases reread all her others except for the last three. She writes beautifully and creates such wonderful characters, not to mention the settings of the books are splendid. And I have the DVDs of the TV Campions. Plus the biograqphy by Julia Thorogood. According to this, Margery Allingham hated the film adaptation of Tiger. I hope she’d forgive me for saying I enjoy it, having watched it several times, and have my own DVD recorded from the television. She’s a writer I have been reading all my life, and unlike some others, her books give me as much pleasure as they did fifty or more years ago.

    • Thanks Anne H, I agree completely that she was a major writer and that up to the middle of the 50s she was still producing exceptional and varied work. I suppose she wasn’t too keen on the movie because, amongst other things, it excised Albert and his clan from the story, but I’m with you, it’s a superb adaptation, very atmospheric, that desperately needs to get a proper commercial release. All I’ve got is a battered VHS from about 20 years ago too! I’ve got the Thorogood book (not the revised edition though) and also have a signed version of the guide to the books, Campion’s Career, by BA Pike that I bought in the original Murder One (in Denmark Street).
      Tiger in the Smoke - movie poster

  12. Skywatcher says:

    Re: the television series, I loved both the frivolous, funny episodes and the heavier ones, but I wonder if the mixture of the two sorts of story helped to doom the series. When it was originally shown it was in opposition to INSPECTOR MORSE. With MORSE you could be pretty sure of the sort of series that you would be getting every week, whilst CAMPION was almost like two completely different series which alternated every fortnight. This may have confused the potential audience.

    The movie version of TIGER IN THE SMOKE desperately needs a commercial DVD release. It’s a superbly made film with a great cast. Roy Ward Baker was apparently never entirely happy about Tony Wright as Jack Havoc, and I tend to agree with him. Wright gave a good performance, but the role really needs someone with presence. The young Oliver Reed, who could radiate malevolence without needing to say a word, would have been an interesting choice. That said, it’s still a great film.

    • I know what you mean about the shift in style, though this was originally a Sunday night costume drama in the style of (the then new) Poirot and following on from Miss Marple and A Dorothy L. Sayers Mystery – what I think is true is that starting with Look to the Lady, while chronologically the right thing to do, even with its lovely to camera intro, should not have been the series opener as the story is comparatively weak and the hint of the supernatural just seems to be too hard to swallow for some as part of the resolution. I also think Mystery Mile from season 2 (which was Friday nights by that point I think) is just quite weak – it really needed that third season which would have covered the books with Amanda from Fashion In Shrouds onwards – I think the more domestic approach would have consolidated it as a series. Oh well – Davison himself did express some regret about not doing a third series with Amanda.

      Not too sure about the movie in that it’s been too long – can’t remember what I thought about Wright though clearly Reed wouldn’t have been available yet shall we say … could have been worse with Richard Attenborough reprising his Pinkie Brown …

  13. Colin says:

    Guys, there’s a perfectly good DVD of Tiger in the Smoke available in the UK as part of ITV’s Donald Sinden Collection box set.

    • Which is really good to know, thanks very much Colin. Infuriatingly, it appears to be incredibly highly priced at the moment however and mixed in with some rather minor titles too …
      Donald Sinden Icon

      • Colin says:

        Ouch! That is a bit expensive. It actually looks like the set is going out of print, hence the pricing. I really only wanted three titles (Tiger in the Smoke, Eyewitness & The Black Tent) so I was happy enough when I picked this up for 16 pounds a few years ago.
        I did a write-up, with a few pics, of Eyewitness as Noir of the Week for The Blackboard back in June:

        • That is not helping Colin 🙂 Those are three titles that caught my eye too – I’ll definitely try to scour around a for a decently priced – I’ll be kicking myself otherwise (not a pretty site in a man of my advancing years). Amusingly, a friend of mine interviewed Mr Sinden the other day and as it turned out he didn’t know that his appearance on The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes was on DVD I let her give him my copy – a good home I though and the BBC’s Gideon fell deserves more than special consideration …

  14. Jeff Flugel says:

    Excellent choice, to review a Campion novel…well done, Sergio! Margery Allingham is my favorite of the Golden Age “Grande Dame” detective novelists, and I also think she’s the most talented writer of that group. She has a way of carefully, precisely zeroing in on the atmosphere and undercurrents that exist between all the characters in a given scene that is unusual for a detective novel at that time. TRAITOR’S PURSE is indeed a fine novel in the Campion canon and is unusual in the deeper examination it offers of its normally aloof and unflappable central character.

    I happen to enjoy the earlier, more straight up adventure Campions as well, but my favorite in the series is DANCERS IN MOURNING, which was given a very good adaptation in the sadly short-lived series with Peter Davison. Campion feels too far removed from the proceedings in TIGER IN THE SMOKE for it to be anywhere near my favorite, though I admit it’s a well-done piece of work.

    Thanks for bringing attention to this now (unfortunately) somewhat forgotten but very worthy mystery series.

    • Thanks very much Jeff – I do think that Dancers is an excellent novel too and the TV adaptation had Ian Ogilvy give fine performance as Sutane too – Tiger is not the best Campion novel, definitely, but may be the best thing she wrote however overall.

  15. Anne H says:

    Tony Wright seems to have been the go-to man for villain parts in that era. He was in the cast of the film version of Michael Gilbert’s Danger Within, set in an Italian POW camp. (MG was the author of some terrific crime novels and short stories and a POW in Italy himself.) No surprise when the traitor was revealed! Wright was quite effective as Jack Havoc, but maybe it was lazy casting. I did see the young Sean Connery as a gangster in a supporting film in my youth. Tiger was probably made before his time, but there’s a thought!

    • Connery wasn’t in films yet, you’re right, and at 22 was certainly too young. The young Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee perhaps? Probably quite lucky the part wasn’t played by an American import.

  16. Skywatcher says:

    Roy Ward Baker thought that someone like Dirk Bogarde might have been best for the role. He was a matinee idol in the early 50s, but he was able to bring an edge of icy nastiness to some of his roles that would have worked well with Havoc.

    • I can see why Baker thought that – he did play a similar role for Losey in The Sleeping Tiger near that time. I actually think Stewart Granger might have been good as he could play heroes and absolutely bastards in kind of the same way …

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  20. eatierney says:

    I am a huge Allingham fan, and Traitor’s Purse is one of my favorites!! Your review was spot-on!

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