callmemadam (callmemadam) wrote,

The China Governess & Margery Allingham’s London

Cover of reprint

After reading The White Cottage Mystery, I embarked on a small Allingham re-read. I began with The Fashion in Shrouds, an old favourite set in the upper class, fashionable pre-war world which was then Campion’s natural milieu. I moved on to The China Governess. This was a late addition to my collection and I’d only read it once before, so it was like reading a new book. The plot is very complicated. A young man, Timothy, recently engaged to a beautiful heiress, suddenly discovers that everything he has believed about his birth is wrong. His prospective father-in-law wants to know more before allowing the marriage to take place and most of the book is taken up with finding out the truth.

What struck me on re-reading this was what an isolated little world Margery Allingham created for it. She rarely visited London, preferring to stay at home in the country, yet you believe totally in her imagined little corners of London. This goes for More Work for the Undertaker and The Tiger in the Smoke as well. The China Governess has the usual cast of Albert Campion, Charlie Luke and Lugg but sadly no Amanda, whom Allingham made little use of in her later books. Timothy’s family live in a world of their own; they are a family for whom the very word ‘governess’ is strangely sinister. The book was first published in 1963 but it might as well be 1953. It’s as if the end of the "Chatterley" ban And the Beatles' first LP. had never happened.

Moving on (or back) to Hide my Eyes (1958) we find the same phenomenon of a particular corner of London in which all the action is concentrated. This is a real thriller because the reader knows from the start who the criminal is. He’s obviously a psychopath, so you tremble for everyone he becomes involved with. The question in this book is how long it will take Campion and the police to put together all the pieces of the puzzle which Allingham has laid so carefully before the reader.

Book Club edition

I moved on to The Mind Readers. This is a very late book and Allingham didn’t do modern that well. The London here is the area around Canon Avril’s house (he’s Campion’s uncle) but much of the activity takes place at a grim research station. Two boys seem to have discovered the secret of telepathy, a secret which interests many other people. This means the Secret Service (which Campion now helps out) and various agents. It’s all hopelessly far fetched but the precocious boys are very well done and Amanda is back.

Amanda figures again in The Tiger in the Smoke, which I read next. Many people consider this Allingham's best novel. The psychopathic killer here is much more dangerous than the one in Hide My Eyes, hence the title. Jack Havoc is pure evil. This London is foggy, the weather aiding criminals and hampering investigations. Again, Canon Avril’s house is the centre of the action and the powerful yet unworldly 'old man' (probably in his sixties!) has an important role. The mystery goes back to the war and a secret treasure hidden in France. The sinister street band, the dark alleys, the killer on the run having all the luck and all the time that penetrating London fog make for a wonderfully sustained atmosphere of fear and tension.
Tags: crime fiction, margery allingham

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