Margery Allingham: Sweet Danger

sweetdangerMargery Allingham is one of the authors I think of as the “Big Five” – Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L. Sayers and Josephine Tey being the other four – and of the five, she is easily the most original and eccentric, Sweet Danger being a case in point. Like contemporary writer Christopher Fowler, Allingham was hewing to a traditional detective storytelling mode while at the same time pushing and twisting all the boundaries as far as she could, and few of her books show this effort more beautifully than Sweet Danger.

Albert Campion is the most eccentric of all the classic detectives ( and so is his mansevant, Magersfontein Lugg). He is sometimes so inaccessible to the reader that it’s only after repeated or multiple readings that you begin to get a feel for his character. He’s frequently described as “vacant” by his creator, a man retreating behind his glasses and fantastic lineage (hinted at, but never fully divulged) to become an observer of any proceeding. When he snaps into action, you know things must be dire. And here, of course, he varies from every other classic detective – he’s not handsome and titled like Wimsey, or handsome, brilliant and high up in the police department like Alleyn, or brilliant like Poirot – he just is and the reader must accept Campion as he is presented or not at all. There’s usually never even a moment where someone concerned in the proceedings turns to him and suddenly realizes like a bolt of lightening that they’re dealing with a brilliant mind (as frequently happens with Wentworth’s Miss Silver). But he does make things happen and work out though it’s never totally clear to the reader (often a personage, myself definitely included, of far less intelligence than Campion himself) how that happens.

In Sweet Danger the action begins in a very high rent hotel where the manager is disturbed – he can’t figure out if his guests are royalty or con men – and he turns to a frequent customer for his advice. His customer, recognizing his old friend Albert Campion, wonders what Campion is doing playing at being royalty, and he, like the reader, is immediately sucked into Campion’s scheme to impersonate the potentate of the lost state of Averna. As we learn the story we discover that Campion is searching for the authentication papers of the Earl of Pontisbright – it’s not totally clear why, though it seems to be related to both averting war and oil revenues – and what he is trying to do is flush out the other fortune hunters to see if he is one the right track. Of course he is, and his quest takes him to a tiny village where he meets up with the remarkable Fitton family, Mary, Amanda, Hal and the indomitable Aunt Hat (Miss Huntingforest to you). Any Allingham devotee is aware that Amanda is the future Mrs. Campion, though in this encounter, she’s a mere youth of seventeen, though already more than a match for Campion. The Fittons of course are the rightful heirs and it’s Campion’s quest to find proof before one or another of them is done in along the way.

Allingham has so much fun telling her stories (and it’s what makes me think Christopher Fowler must be a contemporary fan). She manages to work in the workings of the mill, an ancient crown, a crazy doctor, some lore on witchcraft, a villain with a widow’s peak (Peaky), several brilliant cons on the part of Campion and a final scene as packed with action as any you could ever hope to read. It’s all done with such a light touch – this packed full of action story is actually very concisely told – and at the end, remarkably, Campion doesn’t turn out to be a cardboard detective but a man of flesh and feeling. As a pure prose stylist, she has few equals, and though some of her phrasing now seems antique it also is interesting. I find, in my university town, that brilliant professors and mathematicians who won’t admit to reading mysteries will still admit to a devotion to Margery Allingham. All these many years later, she’s still an irresistible Queen of Crime.