This is Margery Allingham’s shortest Albert Campion novel (my Penguin TV tie-in edition, featured on the right, runs to 138 pages) but it certainly packs in plenty of incident with the sleuth battling problems on the domestic and romantic front while also trying to solve a murder or three. It first appeared as a paperback in the Spring of 1937, more or less simultaneously with a darker and much longer Campion hardback, Dancers in Mourning. For his eighth (or ninth, depending on how you count) reported case, our amateur detective (and reputed member of the Royal family) opts, for the first and only time, to narrate his own adventure, which takes place in one of those far away fairytale East Anglia villages so beloved by Allingham.
I submit this review for Bev’s 2013 Vintage Mystery Challenge in the ‘Dangerous Beasts’ category; the 2013 Book to Movie Challenge at the Doing Dewey blog (for links to other participants’ reviews, click here); and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her Pattinase blog – you should head to these great sites right away to check out some of the other selections offered this week.
“The main thing to remember in autobiography, I have always thought, is not to let any damned modesty creep in to spoil the story”
So begins Campion’s narration, which as Allingham scholar Barry Pike has pointed out (in Campion’s Career, 1987), has more than a touch of PG Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster about it. Indeed, this light-hearted black comedy of murder and misappropriated bodies harks back to the breezy style of early Campions like Mystery Mile and Sweet Danger, though it also includes a very solid whodunit. The story begins with Albert breakfasting in bed while Lugg reads him the obituary notices in The Times – thus he learns of the death of Roland Isidore ‘Pig’ Peters, the red-headed and distinctly porcine school bully who made his young life hell. Things are not be quite as straightforward as they might seem though as Albert also receives a curiously worded anonymous letter referring to the death of ‘Pig’ while making incomprehensible references to moles. Suitably intrigued, Campion heads off to the tiny hamlet of Tethering and the at sparsely attended funeral meets Kingston, the bored local doctor who looked after Peters in his dying days, and old school chum Gilbert Whippet, who also received an anonymous letter with its obscure references to moles. Five months later and Albert is asked by Sir Leo Pursuivant, via his daughter Janet, to pop down immediately to Kepesake, another village very near where Peters was buried, to look into a tricky matter involving a dead body.
“Janet smouldered at me across the hearthrug”
Albert is less worried about the body and more concerned about the reception he will receive from Janet, who had a crush on him which he unceremoniously if unintentionally squelched. And indeed she proves to alternately cool and hot in a series of amusing if often farcical romantic misunderstandings. But back to the body … A man named Oswald Harris had managed to obtain, by devious means, the mortgage on the hotel run by beloved ex-actress Poppy Burridge as well and ownership of the surrounding plots of land. he was now planning to foreclose so that he could build a race track and cinema and thus ruin the sleepy tranquility of the citizens. He thus became the most disliked man in town – on top of which he proved to be a thoroughly disagreeable bully, so that virtually everyone wished him ill. Earlier that day, while sitting in the sun in the hotel gardens, he was killed by a flower-pot shoved from the hotel roof and all Poppy’s ‘regulars’ are suspects, including Leo in fact (though he doesn’t realise it, despite being the Chief Constable). But all the regulars give each other alibis, which only seems to leave the vaguely sinister (and scruffy) stranger who goes by the name of ‘Hayhoe’ who has been seen hanging about with Harris though not around the fateful hour. And what is the ever-elusive Whippet doing back in town? Things then really get complicated when Campion gets a look at the body – and discovers that it is in fact ‘Pig’ Peters! How can the man have died again – and why was he masquerading at Harris? Things get really tangled when the body is later stolen from the makeshift mortuary only to turn up again in a dyke …
“Lost the perishin’ corpse now?”
This is a book with a fast-moving plot and populated with a cast of amiable eccentrics, all drawn with enviable economy. Albert gets caught up in a series of farcical romantic shenanigans with Janet, who professes to be over her infatuation but clearly isn’t ans now becomes the object of the affection of the progressive but dull Bathwick, the local vicar, who starts acting very suspiciously indeed and who resents Campion, seeing him as his romantic adversary in the hunt for Janet’s affections. Then there is Effie, Peters’ fiancée, who suddenly arrives with Whippet and makes an enormous nuisance of herself by pretending to be Campion;s friend and then insisting, late at night, to see the body. This really irritates Campion and in addition manages to make Janet jealous. On top of this there is a second and rather ghoulish murder, in which the victim is tied up in a field in the place of a scarecrow – and then, to cap it all, Lugg suddenly and inexplicably gives his notice and leaves! Lugg’s apparent resignation from service and Campion panic when he can’t find him anywhere gives a real urgency to the story and gives the action climax an extra bit of emotional punch as all is revealed.
“A life that needs a murder to make it interesting must, I thought, be very slow indeed”
Adaptations for BBC radio and TV
This novel has been adapted twice for radio and twice for television by the BBC:
- Richard Hurndall and Hamlyn Benson played Campion and Lugg respectively in a 90-minute radio production broadcast on what was then the BBC Home Service (later renamed BBC Radio 4) on 11 September 1965,
- James Snell and Cyril Shaps took on the roles for a new adaptation of the same length for Radio 4, broadcast on 9 January 1982.
- The first version for the small screen was a one-hour reduction shown on 28 July 1968 for the popular anthology series Detective (1964-69) in which Campion was played by Brian Smith and Lugg by George Sewell. Although it is said to exist in the archives I have yet to see it sadly.
- The 1989 version is much easier to get hold of. It was adapted as part of the BBC’s series Campion (1989-90) in two one-hour episodes, one of eight novels adapted for the show also as two-parters, with generally excellent results.
Davison makes for a really engaging Campion, able to channel both his facetious and more serious sides with ease and charm to spare and he plays wonderfully opposite Brian Glover, who is perfectly (type)cast as the cockney manservant (and loyal friend) Lugg. The adaptation by Jill Hyem is very faithful, and indeed most of the (few) additions are mainly there to break from the shackles of the book’s first person perspective and so provide welcome excuses for Glover to get more to do while separated from Campion. Without getting into spoilers, this does also create and amusing anomaly. Right at the beginning the TV version makes an odd addition by emphasising that the man identified as Oswald Harris is wearing a toupee – this only makes sense at the climax when the attempt is made to pass off Lugg (or rather the bald-pated Brian Glover) as Harris – to make this work in the final scenes Glover suddenly has slightly longer hair at the sides then he does in the rest of the series. Moray Watson was a genius at playing amiable duffers of the old school and so is perfect as Sir Leo while comic actor John Fortune is very well cast as peachy-keen medic Kingston. Even better is Michael Gough, who brings just the right mixture of rascally charm and seediness to his portrayal of ‘Hayhoe’. Shot entirely on film on location, this production also showcases the BBC’s well-known expertise with period dramas in terms of design and costumes too – highly recommended!
Both parts of the serial are available to view online from the BBC:
Case of the Late Pig / Campion (1989)
Director: Robert Chetwyn
Producer: Ken Riddington
Screenplay: Jill Hyem
Cinematography: Nigel Walters
Art Direction: Ken Ledsham
Music: Nigel Hess (theme tune sung by Peter Davison)
Cast: Peter Davison, Brian Glover, Moray Watson, Amanda Elwes, Michael Gough, John Fortune, Dilys Laye, Claire Williamson