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.