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Think film noir. Trilby hats. Dark shadows. Blackouts and fifth columnists. The year is 1941 and Britain is at war. Albert Campion awakes in hospital, with no memory of how he got there. All that he knows in his amnesiac state, is the importance of the number 15 and that the fate of the country depends on him.
There is no gentle introduction to the discovery of a body in Chapter Two and Campion is evidently in the thick of it as soon as he comes around. Believing he has murdered a policeman, he escapes hospital by setting off a fire alarm and posing as a fireman, finally stealing a car (albeit one that seems strangely familiar).
Allinghams earlier work had introduced an intelligent, aristocratic yet self-effacing detective to the reader. With his sidekick, former burglar Lugg, he was more usually to be found in pursuit of long lost treasure or uncovering paganism in an English village. Traitors Purse represents a change of pace, as the government calls upon him to save England in her darkest hour.
A mysterious organisation aims to destabilise the country, but the means or motive are unknown. As Campion struggles to piece together fragments, unable through his mental fog to perceive whom he can trust, he also unwittingly alienates Amanda Fitton, his fiancée. Finally he is arrested for the murder of a policeman while on the trail of counterfeit money.
Campion is named after a hedgerow flower, of which there are two varieties, the white and the pink, often seen doubleheaded in gardens.
Her preceding books such as Sweet Danger and Mystery Mile were both published in the 1930s. Set mostly in Essex and Suffolk, they feature a bucolic way of life, of isolated villages and tradition lost in the mists of time. This story is set in a seaside town on the south coast, beneath which lie underground caverns, reinforcing the theme of darkness. The threat of invasion was a very real one in 1940, especially in coastal areas such as Essex where Allingham lived and were vulnerable to attack from occupied countries across the North Sea.
Embracing his role as an intelligence officer, the modest Campion embarks on a journey of self-discovery. In love with the red-haired young woman at his side, by the end of the adventure he feels completely adult for the first time in his life. Unofficially engaged at the end of Sweet Danger, this is the defining moment in their relationship. Another recurring character is Campions old friend, Divisional Detective Inspector Charlie Luke. Here Lugg also comes into his element, making a valuable contribution to the denouement, which is one of deceptive simplicity.
The official website tells me that Allingham was a member of the ARP, a First Aid Commandant and organised the resettlement of evacuee children. She was also a member of the British resistance, formed in case of invasion and her fierce patriotism is expressed here. She regarded her writing as falling into two categories, the serious and the less serious books (and more enjoyable to write), placing her detective fiction in the latter category. She has a reputation as one of the best writers from the golden age of crime, alongside Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers. Born in 1904, her photograph is in the National Portrait Gallery. For more biographical detail, see the informative www.margeryallingham.org.uk, where the novel is summed up perfectly, as taut and feverish.
It is also witty, literary and sophisticated. While these are also characteristics of her earlier novels, some readers may nonetheless find their period feel outdated. Although it is set in a society defined by class, it is never eulogised as it is in Christie and is far more perceptive. It is not necessary to have read the earlier or later novels to enjoy this one. A fan myself, but by no means having read all of her work, I was carried along by the atmospheric, unusual plot and delicately crafted romance. Combining familiar characters with the pace of a thriller and fuelled by wartime patriotism, it makes for a diverting and illuminating addition to her body of work.
Published in paperback by Vintage, ISBN 0099492830. Formerly available from Penguin Classic Crime Series, no 772.
Celebrated amateur detective Albert Campion awakes in hospital accused of attacking a police officer and suffering from acute amnesia. All he can remember is that he was on a mission of vital importance to His Majesty's government before his accident. On the run from the police and unable to recognise even his faithful servant Lugg or his own fiancee, Campion struggles desperately to put the pieces together while the very fate of England is at stake.