For various reasons I read remarkably few books in December. This was one of them and I loved it. I suspect it was a re-read, but I can't be sure. My mother, who was a huge fan of Allingham, introduced me to her novels when I was a young teenager, and in those early years I gobbled up everything I could lay my hands on of hers, so surely this was among them. But we're talking decades ago, and these days I sometimes can't remember what I read last week. In any case, I do remember falling in love as soon as I started on them -- I think my first was Sweet Danger -- with Albert Campion, and with the sparky young Amanda Fitton, who would eventually become his wife. Both of them appear here, of course, but in a very unusual set of circumstances.
Traitor's Purse is often said to be the best of Allingham's novels. I don't have an opinion on this -- I'd have to re-read them all to make up my mind -- but it certainly is a truly excellent book. Here's a passage from early on in the story:
Campion glanced at his mail with a slowly growing sense of satisfaction. The sight of his name on several envelopes gave him, however unreasonably, a certain faith in his own identity.
He looked at the one headed baldly: 'My office. The Yard. Tuesday". It ran on: "Dear A.C. For God's sake get busy. Keep your eye on the calendar. The figures 15 turn my belly whenever I see or hear them. Forced to rely on you now. Every other line has gone slack, and time is so short. If this thing happens, it is the END. I'm not a religious chap, but I'm praying now literally. Damn you, succeed. S."
Mr Albert Campion read the letter twice. There were cold waves playing up and down his spine. Some terrible responsibility rested upon him and he had no recollection at all of what it was.
Yes, Campion has been knocked on the head and has completely lost his memory. By this stage he has managed to make his way to where he's staying, and worked out what his name is, but that's about it. He knows he is being relied on to solve some terribly important mystery, but he has no idea of what it could be. Amanda is also staying at the house, and he quickly realises that he's in love with her and that they were to be married quite soon -- but Amanda then tells him she's fallen in love with someone else and that their engagement is at an end.
Under normal circumstances Campion would be honest about his condition and seek help. But with everyone involved depending on him he feels he must somehow press ahead even though he is completely in the dark as to what he is trying to discover, and must not shake their faith in him by telling the truth. He also knows that if Amanda knew, she would stay with him out of pity, and that's something he could not bear. And so begins the most extraordinary game in which Campion follows whatever blind instincts are left to him, needing all his ingenuity to follow not just the clues to the mystery itself -- clearly a terrible crime that will have world shattering repercussions -- but also any clues he can discern about what on earth is going on in the first place.
So this is really what's now called a psychological thriller, though the term would presumably not have been familiar to Allingham in 1940 when this novel was written. The actual solution of the crime, which Campion slowly manages to work out for himself, was highly topical in those early days of the war, and involve a German plot which apparently Allingham's publishers thought was too far-fetched but which proved to be an actual reality. But all this is really secondary to the extraordinary and fascinating view in the novel of what's going on in Campion's mind. For one thing, though he can't remember anything about himself at all, he finds that his body has habits and skills -- his surprisingly great physical strength, for example -- which often take him by surprise. Then there's a sort of non-verbal intuition, a sense of danger or threat, presumably a result of the many cases he has solved in the past, which kicks in at unexpected moments. But perhaps most interesting of all is the way his loss of memory affects his relationship with Amanda. He's known her since she was more or less a child, they've always had a great rapport, but he has never expressed, maybe never even realised, how much he loves and depends on her. Now, his defences down, he finds his true feelings emerge with tremendous intensity, just at the time when it will be a disaster to reveal them. This is extraordinarily touching and its impossible not to feel great pity for the poor man, finding himself so in love and being unable to express it. Also very touching is Campion's meeting with his manservant, the wonderful ex-con Magersfontein Lugg, who spots Campion's peculiar mental state immediately though no-one else has recognised it, and behaves towards him with great protective tenderness.
So all in all this was a joy to read. It's made me want to go back and re-read more of Allingham's novels (I've already been returning to them from time to time over the years). Obviously this one is highly recommended.