Mystery Mile, by Margery Allingham

Mystery Mile (1930) is the second title in the series of Margery Allingham mysteries featuring Albert Campion, but it’s the first where Campion is the main problem-solver. The sleuth of The Crime at Black Dudley was a stuffy doctor, but parts of that book felt like watching the main characters wait for Campion to show up and make things interesting again. Apparently, Allingham received some feedback from her readers, especially in the United States, and chose to write MM around Campion.

MM is a cross between a classic mystery and a kind of spy-thriller, with a lot of plot turns and emerging characters. In short, it has a bit more action and suspense than the first book, but at the cost of complexity. Allingham seems to have crammed a lot of ideas into a single story, and while there’s too much extraneous material for MM to be considered a favorite, she manages to keep the important parts in order.

Judge Lobbett is on a boat from the United States to England with his adult children, after several attempts on his life were made by gangsters. He has a reputation for going after organized crime, and has not escaped the attention of a hidden crime lord named Simister. Simister is known for never making a public appearance, but having his deeds carried out entirely by subordinates.

Albert Campion was actually the chosen subordinate in The Crime in Black Dudley, but that mission went off the rails. Campion gets himself on the other end of Simister’s plans this time, as he is on Lobbett’s boat as a passenger – a “youth” carrying a mouse (named Haig) in his pocket and watching a magic show:

For the first time Mr. Barber’s companion seemed to take an intelligent interest in the proceedings and he joined enthusiastically in the applause.

“I’m potty about conjurers,” he remarked affably. “Haig will like it too, I fancy. I’m most interested to see the effect upon him.”

Mr. Barber smiled indulgently.

“You are making jokes,” he said naively.

The young man shot him a quick glances from behind his spectacles. “I do a little conjuring myself,” he went on confidentially. “And I once knew a man who could always produce a few potatoes out of the old topper, or a half bottle of Bass. He once got in some champagne that way, but it wasn’t much of a brand. Hullo! What’s going on up there?”

He peered at the platform with childlike interest.

Campion ends up sacrificing poor Haig to save Judge Lobbett’s life: Lobbett volunteers to stand inside the magician’s cabinet, but Campion barges onstage with him and manages to put his mouse inside the box first. An electrical fault fries the animal, and another assassination attempt is foiled. This, of course, endears Campion to the judge’s children, Marlowe and Isopel.

Awoken to the continued threat on Judge Lobbett, Marlowe meets up with Campion in London, who confirms that he represents their best hope of staying alive. He sends the Lobbetts to a shoreline estate named Mystery Mile, a manor built on a near-island, accessible only by boat or by a single causeway.

Mystery Mile is maintained by another young-adult pair of siblings, Biddy and Giles. There’s plenty of interaction among Campion and Biddy, Giles, Isopel and Marlowe, but I often had trouble distinguishing between Biddy and Isopel or Giles and Marlowe, despite their stark difference in origin and life experience. Campion is very different from the rest of the lot, with his constant affectations and mannerisms, but it did feel like Allingham was involving one character too many.

In any case, Mr. Barber shows up at the manor as an art collector (this is obviously specious), a roguish palm-reader, as well as a host of back-country villagers, an odd duck of a postman and a depressed rector. The outdoors setting is interesting, with some dangerous quicksand, dramatic tides, a decrepit garden maze and sour weather. I won’t divulge the plot here, beyond saying that involves a grisly suicide, two kidnappings and some written clues left by disappeared characters. These are described quite well, and would have sufficed: it didn’t need the additional romance between some of the characters, who weren’t really described well enough to support it.

I can recommend this one for fans of the “Golden Age of British Mystery,” which is evidently the period between the two World Wars. There are some distinct signs that MM was published in 1930:

  • the nearly miraculous effectiveness of Campion’s smoke-bomb
  • this happens, for some reason:

    Mr. Campion did not speak. He sat huddled in the corner of his chair, blinking at her behind his spectacles.

    “Well, what are you going to do?” Biddy looked down at him angrily.

    He rose to his feet, and walking up to her suddenly put his arm around her neck and kissed her vigorously. She gasped at him, astonishment predominating over every other emotion.

    “What — what are you doing?” she expostulated, breaking away from him.

    “Rough stuff,” said Mr. Campion, and walked out of the room with unusual dignity.

  • Mr. Barber is introduced as a “Turk,” and is often referred to as “the Oriental.” Mild racism by the standards of the time, but it’s telling there’s but one non-white character in a story involving a transoceanic boat trip and London.

We also meet Lugg, a large but eloquent man who works as Campion’s servant. In this story, he’s a straight man for Campion’s quirks and one-liners, but it’s clear that Allingham is going to keep him around for more volumes. Beyond Simister himself, the villains are rather generic, and Campion seems to be a step ahead of them throughout the proceedings.

Mystery Mile has aged some, but is still an entertaining, if not exactly brisk, sample of the Golden Age era. There is enough to continue going with this series, especially if Allingham keeps showing signs of evolving as a storyteller. 6/10.

About pete

former academic scientist and presently a software engineer. Also, a science fiction and crime fiction book-blogger.
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3 Responses to Mystery Mile, by Margery Allingham

  1. fredfitch says:

    She was quite young when she wrote this. Her second novel. Quite an attractive woman. (I googled). So why is she writing a scene where the hero just walks up to a woman he doesn’t know well and kisses her, when she’s giving him no overt hints that she wants him to?

    Very different times, but I suspect you could find similar scenes in things women are writing now. It’s a matter of control. Her’s her character, he does nothing she doesn’t want him to do, and right that moment, she wants him to kiss the girl and walk away.

    (You know, I’ve read there are polls indicating that many young men now think it’s some kind of sexual assault if you ask a girl to have a drink with you. We’ll get through this somehow, I’m sure. The overreaction, in every direction. Feminism flirting with Puritanism. Conservative religious folks voting for shameless libertines with no discernible morality of any kind. Topsy-turvy don’t half say it.)

    Thing is, women were not having nearly as much fun then (with many exceptions). They were much less free to experiment with their varying sexualities. Women are certainly a big part of the audience for books like this, then and now. So it’s not about appealing to male readers, particularly (male readers would prefer a more rough-edged macho guy doing the smooching). It’s about making the hero a little more dangerous and unpredictable. It’s for the female readership. It may also be to prove he isn’t gay, of course.

    This is the era of Tinder. Which I don’t think Margery Allingham could even imagine. So instead of women having overly safe boring love lives (not that all of them did, at any time), there’s plenty of danger in real life romance, so fiction is expected to dial it back a little (but not always, women are still going to James Bond films, but now he’s all tormented and emotionally scarred.)

    Let’s also remember that Campion is from an aristocratic family. That somehow makes it better. It shouldn’t, but it does.

    I’ve never read any of her books. It’s not my type of mystery. I’ve read a bit of Christie and Sayers, and of course I did my research on P.D. James. With infinite time, I’d read everything.

    Liked by 1 person

    • pete says:

      I think you’re pretty close with the logic behind the whole kissing scene. I pulled it out of it context, of course, but that was to make the point that the context was rather weakly developed.

      There is a romance subplot throughout Mystery Mile that ends – spoilers – with Biddy getting married to Marlowe and Giles getting married to the other Marlowe. Campion is supposed to be interested in Biddy, but his quirks and misdirections get in the way. He’s an underdog in the romance department, but since we don’t see his trusting relationship with Lugg until maybe 2/3 of the way into the story, he’s got no one to confide his feelings to. I felt like this part of the book just wasn’t developed well, and the kissing scene just came out of nowhere, and led nowhere.

      The other factor is that Mystery Mile might have been serialized, and the scene was there to provide a cliffhanger. Given the times (like you said), that kind of advance would be a high-stakes move for Campion – and Biddy as well. The timing of it may seem odd, when read cover-to-cover.

      I can see myself picking up a third Allingham mystery sometime, when I’m interested in the time and place again. There’s something to be said about genre fiction that’s “of its time.” Looking around the internet, there are certainly quite a few fans of the Campion series still around.

      Like

      • fredfitch says:

        You learn a lot about a given time period by its popular fiction, so long as you don’t take it literally.

        She’s clearly still feeling her way into the character (that’s one way to put it). I can’t say I feel inclined to look any deeper into Mr. Campion. Not a lot there.

        A better (or more seasoned) writer would have found a more unconventional detective. Somebody who broke the mold a bit. Christie began with an odd little Belgian, of the lineage of Dupin and Holmes. Then she decided a curious old woman would be a good detective. Keep the reader a bit off-balance.

        Allingham’s read good detective stories, she knows that much, so she’s trying to make her detective unpredictable, offbeat. Westlake wrote about this, the need for each new series character to have some oddity to set him/her apart, but the end result was usually that they were all of a piece. The conflicts have to be organic, not just slapped on for effect. She eventually married Campion off (as Sayers married off Lord Pete.) But it sounds like he never became much of a character, to the point where she’d marginalize him in his own novels. I’m sure they both got better over time. But here, she’s just sort of testing him out in the romance department, while keeping him footloose and fancy free (so female readers can go on fantasizing about him, old trick).

        Christie avoided that kind of thing altogether, as did Conan Doyle–even Tommy and Tuppence are already married when we meet them. Not a romance, but a relationship, that makes a romance unnecessary. Interesting they showed up over a decade before Nick and Nora–then she revived them after the Hammett novel and subsequent films. Cross-pollination, across continents, between schools.

        With mysteries, and the derivative sub-genres, the problems alone don’t interest me much. The personalities do. If they are interesting.

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