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Andrew Seeley goes out one Sunday after church and doesn't return. A few days later, his body is found in a nearby stream. This wasn't death by drowning though - he had been shot through the head. Suspicion immediately falls on the family, which consists of the matriarch, Caroline Faraday, her children, William, Julia and Kitty, and a great-niece, Joyce. Through her fiance, Joyce calls in Albert Campion to clear the family name. Campion moves into the family home and soon finds that there is far more to the case than meets the eye, especially when Julia is found dead in bed, having been poisoned. Can Campion find out the truth before there is another murder?
Margery Allingham is often referred to as one of the Queens of Crime, along with Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy L Sayers, although her name is perhaps not quite as well known. I think this is a shame, because her books are actually very well written and her plots, although often rather contrived, are certainly original. She also writes with a huge amount of humour that comes through very well. This particular book is one of her earlier, and therefore better as far as I am concerned, books.
Albert Campion is a bit of a mystery. He comes from a wealthy background, but enjoys delving in the mire of the criminal fraternity. His valet is, in fact, an ex-criminal turned loyal companion, who often manages to use his old connections to rescue Campion; the pair of them often go in for a bit of breaking and entering together - all in the cause of the solution of a crime, of course. I have personally always found Campion a little bit bland. He tends not to do all that much, but is a thinking man, which doesn't make for all that exciting reading. However, the other characters in this book, particularly the matriarch of the family, make up for Campion's lack of character. Caroline Faraday is in her eighties, the widow of an accomplished academic, and runs the house in exactly the same way that she has for the last forty years. Campion's dealings with her, which involve a great deal of tact on his part, are fabulously written and amusing and really made the book for me.
Margery Allingham tends to go in for rather intricate plots that are littered with clues, but it is rarely possible to guess what happens at the end. This book is no different. The ending was totally unexpected and I thought rather well done - certainly much better than a lot of her other books. The one thing that irritated me was Campion's ability to jump to the most amazing conclusions with very little apparent reason. This is a common factor in Allingham's books and tends to make them a lot less realistic than they otherwise would have been.
One difference between Allingham and Christie in the way that they write is that, whereas Agatha Christie concentrates on the stories, which could often be set in any period, Allingham spends a lot of time describing the period in which the book is set. This is probably why her books are less popular than Agatha Christie, but is actually one of the reasons that I really enjoy reading her work - this book is set in the 1930s and descriptions of fashion and home decoration are explained in detail. This does mean that some will find the book old-fashioned though - it certainly can't compare to the high-tech world of Patricia Cornwell and the like.
I have read most of Margery Allingham's books now and have never been disappointed by any of them, but this is probably one of my favourite. Recommended to anyone that enjoys a good mystery.
The book is available from play.com for £5.49. Published by Vintage, there are 256 pages. ISBN: 9780099507345
When Albert Campion is called in by the fiancee of an old college friend to investigate the disappearance of her uncle, he little expects the mysterious spate of death and dangers that follows among the bizarre inhabitants of Socrates Close, Cambridge. He and Stanislaus Oates must tread carefully, and battle some complex family dynamics, to solve the case.