Look to the Lady by Margery Allingham

A classic British mystery blending danger, suspense and eerieness. 

After Traitor’s Purse, this is my favourite Campion mystery. It combines just the right amount of mystery, danger and comraderie with a spookiness that remains with you even after the puzzles are solved.

The story opens with a constable handed a shilling to a poverty-stricken young man. Visible means of support was required to avoid arrest, and the constable has known the young man in his better days.

Val is homeless after being estranged from his father – it is just one of Campion’s jobs to return the young man to the ancestral home. More importantly, he must protect the Gyrth Chalice that has been in Val’s family for centuries.

Campion doesn’t share many details, even with his beloved servant and former burglar Lugg. If you’ve not read a Campion mystery, it is the chemistry between these two that makes the series so delightful. Campion’s amiable, vacuous personality conceals a brilliant mind. He’s inclined to make light of danger and act foolish, so the trucculent motherliness of Lugg provides a beautiful counterweight.

But this mystery is a doozy and puts both of them in extreme peril. The evil people seeking the chalice could be any number of vague people. What do the priceless chalice, the death of Val’s foolish aunt, a secret society and a living nightmare have in common?

These are the trials that Campion and Lugg must face, along with Val, his lovely sister Penny and a host of other well-rounded characters. In their quest to save the chalice, they must face the stuff of nightmares in a spooky old wood and survive multiple scores of violence.

This book more so than even Christie or Marsh mysteries thrusts you deep into the English countryside. Somehow it takes you deep into a tiny village in the post-war 1920s while simultaneously layering in the spell of a much older England.

Like our Sam Gamgee said that Lothlorien was like being inside an elven song, so is Look to the Lady like being transported into something quintessentially English.

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Black Plumes by Margery Allingham

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An exquisitely constructed post-war mystery that keeps you guessing.

Another classic and delightful Allingham book. Instead of her usual detective it is narrated by the very charming young Frances. She’s desperately trying to tell her regal grandmother that the family gallery is going off the rails fast. The chapter culminates with a dramatic scene featuring a slashed painting and a seemingly simple argument that will descend into murder.

Why is Frances’ brother-in-law so furious when she turns down his friend, an unctuous and slimy little man? Why is her half-sister such a miserable, terrified wreck? When a murder occurs, they all know someone in the house is a killer. Despite the police presence no one feels safe, perhaps because the police are there as much to arrest as to protect.

There are a veritable feast of suspects and Frances is hard pressed to keep her cool. Could it be her own hysterical half-sister, the victim’s unhappy wife? Or perhaps Frances’ new fiancé, the artist whose painting was slashed and who wants to marry immediately so they can’t testify against each other? Even her beloved and regal grandmother, whose mind slides in and out of focus, could be using her age as a clever cover.

The book is seen through Frances’ uncertain and troubled eyes – Allingham uses this device brilliantly. We follow along with Frances, tortured by the conflict between her conscience and her sense of loyalty. The Scottish detective Birdie keeps his own counsel, so along with Frances we wait and listen to what clues drop, hoping to uncover the truth and protect the ones we love…

The White Cottage Mystery by Margery Allingham

whiteAn old-fashioned and twisty British crime classic.

This is the first mystery novel (and second novel) for a brilliant mystery writer. It is surprisingly well put together for such an early effort. It doesn’t feature her charming Albert Campion, but instead an avuncular older detective W.T. and his Watson-like son Jerry. The story is more old-fashioned than her others, it reminds me rather of Agatha Christie’s shorter stories but it is novella length.

W.T. is called in on a case of murder – a neighbor has wandered into another man’s house and been shot. From the start it becomes clear that everyone absolutely hates the man and has a motive. The man is even crueler than the average unlikable victim, and a kind of blackmailer who enjoys torturing his victims rather than making money from it.

The suspects are all unique. In the house we find the brimstone and fervour of the servant Estah, the nervous and charming Mrs. Christensen with her little daughter, her feisty sister, and the handicapped war hero husband Mr. Christensen. In the dead man’s household we have the grimy, worm-like Lacy and the mysteriously vanished Mr. Cellini. All have excellent motives and in some cases quite good alibis.

Moving between England and France, the novel does a good job setting the scene without a lot of details. W.T. is very kindly and intelligent, he presses for the truth. His son Jerry is much more the muscle-bound Watson or Hastings, an invaluable help to W.T. but a victim of his own emotions. (Ah, always Hastings you fall for the auburn haired girls!)

The plot is a simple one but continues to open up confusing little twists and sends you scurrying from one suspect to another along with W.T.  I did not predict the ending but like any classic Golden Age novel, it provides an ah-ha moment.

30-day e-book loan courtesy of NetGalley.