It's no secret to readers of this blog that I'm a huge admirer of Margery Allingham. I think I've read all her novels at some point over the course of my life, but as it's been rather a long one I've happily re-read a good many of them in recent years. I even went so far, a few months ago, as to buy a box set of the 1989-1990 TV series based on some of her books. It's called Campion (after her celebrated detective, of course) and starred Peter Davidson. It passed a few relatively enjoyable hours but didn't do the books justice - and for my money Davidson didn't work for me as Campion, though the late great Brian Glover was fantastic as his manservant Magersfontein Lugg. Most of the stories were already quite familiar to me, though I was slightly irritated by the fact that they arranged them out of their original order of publication. Any true fan of Campion will know that he changes and develops over the course of his appearances -- the eight books in this TV series ranged from 1930 to 1937, and he's a great deal more fully rounded as a character by the later date. But that's all by the by.
I was particularly intrigued by Dancers in Mourning, as my memory of the novel was very vague, so I thought I should give it a re-read. And what an interesting novel it is, much more multi-faceted than the TV version suggested. First published in 1937, this book concerns what the blurb on this old Penguin cover calls 'a grease-paint world' - the world of the theatre, that is, and in this case musical theatre. Campion gets called in to help solve what at first seems no more than an irritating mystery. Jimmy Sutane, the famous singing and dancing star of a successful musical comedy, has been the victim of a series of disturbing practical jokes, ranging from a needle in a make-up stick (nasty trick, this one) to a party invitation sent out without his knowledge and resulting in a large crowd of neighbours arriving unexpectedly at his country house, where they find nothing to eat or drink. Sutane is a sensitive chap and his performance is suffering from the strain, so Campion agrees to come and stay at the house for a few days to see what he can find out.
The rather grand and elegant house is heaving with people, mostly theatrical types associated with Sutane in some way, but there's also his moody young sister and his beautiful wife Linda, and their strange little daughter. Also arrived for the weekend is Chloe Pye, an ageing actress who has somehow managed to get a part in the musical and has invited herself for the visit, though she is extremely irritating and universally disliked. Shortly after Campion arrives, Chloe falls from a bridge onto the road in front of Sutane's car and is run over. It's generally assumed that this was an accident, but Campion is not so sure. He starts to investigate and discovers that, though Sutane denies having known her in the past, their association goes back a long way. But before he can proceed very far with all this, there's another death, this time of a young man, an aspiring dancer, who is blown up by a bomb affixed to his bicycle.
So Campion pursues his usual investigations, but he does so unwillingly and with less than his usual success. There's a reason for this - he has fallen instantly and powerfully in love with Jimmy Sutane's wife, and this has seriously clouded his usually brilliant mind. And, since it begins to look more and more likely that Sutane is guilty of both murders, he's extremely unwilling to proceed towards that conclusion because of the effect it would have on beautiful Linda.
This is a side of Campion we haven't seen before. He has been given to slight crushes on unavailable young women, and in an early novel (Sweet Danger) we saw him taking a great liking to young Amanda Fitton, to whom, few books later, he will get married, but this business with Linda Sutane is far more serious and painful for him - he's much too honourable to act on his feelings, but it's clear she also feels something for him and the whole thing puts him in a dreadful quandary.
There are many things to admire and enjoy in Allingham's novels, not least her excellent prose style and wonderful character observation, but for regular readers the development of Campion's character is certainly one of them. She seems to have started to take more and more interest in his psychology, something which is evident here and which comes to a peak in the amazing Traitor's Purse (1940), in which he loses his memory and learns things about himself he has been ignoring or denying for some time.
So this novel, and indeed anything by Allingham, is highly recommended not just for the plot but for the intelligence, wit and fine writing. I doubt if a great deal of time will go by before I've (re-)read yet another!