I believe this great 1933 Golden Age classic to be the first crime novel I ever read -- I was one of those children who spent hours of my life lying on the sofa with a book (still my position of choice), and my mother gave me this when I was about 12, presumably to feed my addiction. I can actually remember the time and the place -- it was in the Christmas holidays, and we were staying with friends in a big country house in Essex -- rather a good location for reading such a novel, in fact. I've re-read it more than once over the years, and this time I listened to a rather good reading of it on Audible. I'm happy to say it gave me as much pleasure as always.
Allingham was a prolific writer, but as I'm sure you know, her most celebrated novels feature the gentleman adventurer and detective Albert Campion. Apparently she invented him as a sort of spoof on Peter Whimsey, and in the early books he is deceptively bland and inoffensive, and even appears foolish, but behind his horn-rim spectacles there's pair of eyes that miss nothing and a stunningly brilliant brain. Sweet Danger is actually his sixth appearance, but it's remained one of my all-time favourites, partly because I encountered it so young and partly because it's the novel in which Campion meets his future wife, the adorably bright and feisty young Amanda Fitton.
The underlying theme of the plot is actually a rather contemporary one -- think John Gresham, for example -- Big Oil vs the small people. Big Oil in the person of the millionaire financier Savernake wants to take possession of a small, oil-rich principality on the Adriatic Sea, which belonged historically to an aristocratic family named Pontisbright. Although the line is believed to have died out, a young family in a Suffolk village think they have a claim to the title. So Campion and his friends, accompanied by Campion's manservant, the ex-con Lugg, descend on the village to help the investigation and to foil Savernake. They find the impoverished young family living in a run-down mill, which is kept going sporadically by the mechanically-minded 17-year-old Amanda and her assistant, Scatty Williams. Also living there are her beautiful older sister Mary and her younger brother Hal, claimant to the Pontisbright title, and their American aunt Hattie. Amanda shows Campion an old inscription on a slab of oak, which speaks of a missing crown, a drum and an ancient bell -- if these can be found, the inscription says, the title will be restored.
Many adventures ensue, not the least of which is Savernake's attempt to get Campion off the case by offering him £50,000 (a huge sum in 1933) to go and quell a revolution in Peru. In fact the family and his friends in Suffolk believe him to have gone, and struggle on to solve the case on their own for some time, though Campion fortunately reappears in time to save them from probable death at the hands of mysterious intruders. And if all this were not enough, the village doctor, Dr Galley, proves to have an obsessive interest in black magic and the family barely escape with their lives after accepting a seemingly innocuous invitation to tea. The final part of the novel, with Campion and Savernake fighting it out in the mill-race, is extraordinarily tense and enjoyable. Indeed, though of course I knew what was going to happen, I still found myself on the edge of my seat, hoping everyone was going emerge unscathed.
So Sweet Danger is not a murder mystery, but rather, I suppose, an adventure story. I've read some later Campion novels recently, including the brilliant Traitor's Purse (reviewed here) and another which I'm saving for the 1938 Club, and I can see that Allingham and Campion matured in very satisfactory and interesting ways over the years. However, this one will always have a special place in my heart, and it's great to see the beginnings of what will prove, after some ups and downs, to be a very happy and fruitful partnership (in every sense) between Campion and Amanda. Great stuff.