I've said it before and I'll say it again -- in my opinion, Margery Allingham was the best of the queens of golden age fiction. I never fell in love with Dorothy Sayers, I've had mixed results with Ngaio Marsh, and, though Christie is unparalleled in her plotting and mystifying, if you want real style, wit, charm and intelligence, Allingham is the way to go.
I always think I've probably read all her novels at some time in my life, but having had rather a long one, some of that reading will have been done so long ago that I've actually forgotten it. This once certainly seemed vaguely familiar, but no details had stayed with me, not that I'd have minded if they had - she's an author who definitely can take re-reading.
This 1936 novel, as with most of her work, features Albert Campion, the posh, deceptively vague and foolish private detective. Behind those horn-rimmed glasses is a brilliant mind and a keen eye, both of which will be needed in this latest case. It is set in and around an ancient publishing firm, Barnabas and Co., whose premises and directors occupy a pair of seventeenth century London houses. The firm is run by a trio of cousins, old John, Paul and young Mike. There should have been a fourth director, Tom, but he disappeared in mysterious circumstances (literally seemed to vanish into thin air while walking down the street) some twenty years before the story starts.
Paul is married to the beautiful Gina, but the marriage is deeply unhappy and she wants a divorce. Meanwhile she and Mike have fallen in love with each other though nothing at all has passed between them. Then, on a Monday morning, someone goes to the locked storeroom to collect something and stumbles over Paul's dead body. Subsequent investigation shows that he has been rather ingeniously murdered, and Mike, the obvious suspect, is arrested and put on trial. The evidence is all circumstantial, but seems pretty devastating. So Campion, Mike's friend, steps in to try to solve this apparently insoluble case.
A good deal of the novel takes the form of a courtroom drama, not something I remember elsewhere in Allingham's work. But there's also a good deal of detecting on the part of Campion taking place behind the scenes. He's aided and abetted partly by his trusty, eccentric manservant, the ex-burgler Lugg, and works with the approval of Scotland Yard. But it's his own intelligence that eventually solves the crime. The ending is quite a surprise, and a hugely pleasurable one.
There are some excellent characters, in addition of course to Campion and Lugg. My favourite was Ritchie, yet another cousin but one who is allowed to take part in the running of the business owing to his apparently scatterbrained mode of thinking. He's unable to speak in whole sentences, but beneath it all proves to be very astute and with a heart of gold. Here's how he appears when Campion has paid him a visit in his room:
He had barely time to let its unexpected charm take hold of him when Ritchie returned, He came scrambling up the staircase like some overgrown spider, his long thin arms and legs barking themselves restlessly on the wooden walls.
'She's coming,', he said, 'Won't be a moment. Had to powder her face. too bad...a child, Campion -- only eighteen. Very pretty .. typist or something. Good family ... been crying .. making statement'.
Indeed Ritchie, who appears to take a very small role in the overall proceedings, proves to be the lynchpin in the whole denouement, but you'll have to find out why by reading this yourself. You won't regret it!