I love old vintage mysteries – I rarely read modern crime fiction – and if I do its historical or a bit cosy. I adore all those gentlemen sleuths and big houses full of odd crusty characters and convoluted mysteries. But aside from all that which is all pretty great anyway – these old vintage mysteries from that period called the Golden Age of Crime, were proper well written novels, with interesting characters fully explored, they are wonderful period pieces. It is years since I read any Margery Allingham, I think I have actually only read a couple. So I was delighted when my sister slipped a couple of old vintage green Penguin Allingham’s into my birthday pressies this month.
“After his first start of surprise the Inspector swung round to find himself facing a young man perched insecurely on a pile of debris in the warm murky shelter of the stove. A shaft of light from the furnace lit up the figure, throwing him into sharp relief.
The Inspector had a vision of a lank immaculate form surmounted by a pale face half obliterated by enormous horn-rimmed spectacles. The final note of incongruity was struck by an old-fashioned deerstalker cap set jauntily upon the top of the young man’s head.
Chief Detective-Inspector Stanislaus Oates began to laugh. Ten minutes before he had felt that spontaneous mirth was permanently beyond him.
‘Campion!’ he said ‘Who’s after you now?’
Aristocratic amateur sleuth Albert Campion aids his friend Inspector Stanislaus Oates in a very perplexing mystery at the home of a group of unhappy ageing cousins and siblings. The household is certainly a very odd one, matriarchal figure Caroline Faraday is an imperious, tiny woman, doted on by her maid Alice, she rules over her household absolutely. There is an atmosphere of strict Victorianism about the place, old heavy furniture and long drawn out formal meal times. Morning tea is strictly forbidden as are motor cars. Her middle aged children and nephew share the house for purely monetary reasons; they each dislike all the others, and are given to frequent squabbles and sulks. Young Joyce Blount, engaged to a solicitor of Campion’s acquaintance, and distantly related to this odd collection of dependents, comes to consult Campion about the peculiar disappearance of her Uncle Andrew. Andrew Seeley is one of the warring relatives who share the house; Socrates Close. Coincidently Inspector Oates is with Campion when Joyce first meets Campion, and it is later that same day that Uncle Andrew’s body is discovered, shot and bound head and foot in a river. The next day, another of the residents of this large shared house is found poisoned in her bed. Joyce decides to stay in the house with her peculiar relatives – the three of them who are left – despite the worrying turn of events.
Campion and Oates have much to unravel. There are lies and subterfuges to be uncovered, a missing hat, an enormous bare footprint in a flower bed, with yet another mysterious relative lurking somewhere in the background. This is all perfectly marvellous vintage crime fare – locked doors, blackmail and poisoning and a brilliant denouement that I really didn’t see coming.
There was a rather unsettling moment at the end – which I can’t say too much about for obvious reasons – but suddenly out of nowhere came a rather unpleasant piece of casual racism which really left a sour taste. There have been lots of occasions when I have come across slight racist references before in old vintage mysteries – I tend to know already to expect them if there is a character in the story from another country for instance- and steal myself accordingly but this one caught me off guard rather and slightly spoiled a book I had otherwise thoroughly enjoyed. Still all that aside – I am looking forward to reading more Margery Allingham soon especially The China Governess – what a great title!