Margery Allingham is known as one of the Queens of Crime, and brought her fictional detective stories to the fore between the two world wars. Her main character is Albert Campion, televised by Peter Davison (although frankly, having seen the TV show the other night, I'm not sure that Peter Davison fits my image of Campion). This book is one of the Campion series, yet the detective hardly features in the book, which I actually feel is an advantage - Campion is known as a 'silly-ass', but is really quite a bland character, who adds little to Allingham's novels. If you want to start by reading a book that focuses mainly on Campion to get a feel for him as a character, 'Sweet Danger' or one of the earlier books is a good place to start.
Allingham began her career as a writer by writing film plays into stories for fan magazines. She published her first book, an adventure story, at the age of 19 and thereafter tried to write plays and a serious novel, which didn't work out. Albert Campion first appeared in 'The Crime at the Black Dudley' in 1929, and was so well-received that she decided to feature him in more books. She wrote about 20 novels featuring Campion (to a lesser or greater extent).
Timothy Kinnit is a happy man, being about to marry his beautiful fiancée, Julia Laurell. However, suddenly Julia's father withdraws his permission to marry. Timothy and Julia are all set to elope, when Timothy finds out the reason for her father's withdrawal - he is not, as he thought, the son of a wealthy man, but was adopted at a young age. He was born during the Blitz in an impoverished part of London; his real mother was killed and he was 'kidnapped' by a young woman who knew that having a baby would be her only way to the countryside and safety. The Kinnit family governess, Nanny Broome, was asked to take care of him and he later came to the attention of the Kinnits themselves.
Timothy decides that he cannot marry Julia until he knows the real truth about his parents. However, when he and Julia begin to investigate, it is clear that someone is trying to persuade them otherwise. After Timothy's visit to the offices of private investigators believed to be working on the case, the office is set on fire and Timothy is accused of the crime. He is released, however, on the word of a local politician, who bears a striking resemblance to Timothy. Timothy and Julia must work together with the assistance of Campion to find out who is trying to prevent him from finding out the truth about his family.
As a sub-plot, the history of a Kinnit governess several decades before is also brought up - the governess was convicted of murdering her lover in front of her charges and later committed suicide. However, for some reason, this history is glossed over by the Kinnits, who seem to be afraid that leakage of the truth will bring about the downfall of the Kinnit family.
Campion plays a minor role in this book; the main characters are Timothy and Julia, with Nanny Broome as a slightly dotty ex-governess in the background. As a character, Campion is certainly not the strongest of the fictional detectives; he reminds me somewhat of Dorothy Sayer's Lord Peter Wimsey, in that he is posh, doesn't have to work and has nothing better to do than interfere in other people's lives. He comes over as being slightly daft, but in fact is very intelligent, and manages to solve both mysteries in this book without even having much to do with it.
As one-offs, Timothy and Julia are engaging enough characters, and their youthful exuberance and innocence leads them into all sorts of potentially dangerous happenings. However, their love for one another, of course, carries on despite everything. Nanny Broome adds a bit of humour to the book. She talks to Timothy and Julia as if they are still small children and is fiercely loyal to Timothy. Unfortunately, she comes over as being a caricature and is not very believable.
I very much enjoyed this book, all the more so because Campion's often odd behaviour and ability to put nothing and nothing together is only a very small part of the book. Someone described this book as both an excellent piece of crime fiction and a good novel and I think that this is very accurate. Allingham writes very well and the plot is very taut. The language is slightly old-fashioned, but not to the extent that it is hard to read, as with similar authors such as Ngaio Marsh.
The only downfall of the book is the ending, which becomes so complicated; I found it hard to follow what was happening and had to read it a couple of times before things fell into place. Once I had worked it all out though, it was a very clever ending. Sadly, Margery Allingham, like Dorothy Sayers, hasn't remained as popular as Agatha Christie, which I think is a shame. Highly recommended.
Used and new versions are available from Amazon from £2.64. Published by Penguin, there are 272 pages. ISBN: 014016619X
Timothy Kinnit had everything - wealth and good looks. Then it happened: he learned he was adopted. His search in London for the facts of his birth involves a tale of evacuation and a mentally deficient youth, drags up a murder and sets off another, before Albert Campion can reveal the truth.