Margery Allingham's Mystery Mile
Margery Allingham wrote during the same period as Agatha Christie and is still popular today. Her cozy English mysteries featuring amateur sleuth, Albert Campion, continue to attract a devoted following. If you like Dorothy L. Sayers’s detective, Sir Peter Wimsey (see my post on Murder Must Advertise), you will enjoy Albert Campion, another aristocratic detective. Both characters are witty and exuberant, although Campion is more eccentric. He delights in harmless stunts and fake identities, disguising his real intent beneath the guise of idle chatter. Campion’s light-hearted disposition is especially noticeable in the earlier novels. As the series progresses, he evolves into a more serious character.
Raised by a mother and father who wrote for popular magazines, Allingham was given her own writing room at age seven. Although she felt that the early pressure of her father had curtailed her childhood, Allingham went on to write novels for 45 years (Rowland 2001, 3).
In Mystery Mile, the second Campion mystery, the very first sentence captures our attention. Pointing to a stranger onboard ship, an American says to a fellow passenger, “I’ll bet you fifty dollars, even money, that the man over there is murdered within a fortnight.” Rumour has it that the stranger is a judge who fled America to escape a murderous plot against his life. By the end of the second chapter, there are six failed attempts on his life. The judge’s son appeals to Campion to save his father from the killer. The novel becomes a cat-and-mouse chase between the killer and the judge; we are in constant suspense waiting for the worst to happen.
Campion’s flat, just above a London police station, is a protected nook in a world of violent crime. “It was tastefully, even luxuriously, furnished,” we are told (25). Yet amidst a Rembrandt etching and other pieces of art are curious objects such as a convict’s cap, a pair of handcuffs, and an Italian dagger. The flat is a delightful, eccentric version of Sherlock Holmes’ old-world quarters.
The main action of the novel takes place in the quaint village of Mystery Mile in the Suffolk countryside. Campion moves the judge and his children to an old-fashioned English manor house owned by his niece and nephew. This pastoral home was built in 1500 and has all the charm and simplicity of a bygone era. The ancient estate contains an intriguing maze that becomes central to the plot.
In Mystery Mile, Allingham is a witty and accurate observer of character. Her narrative is filled with intriguing twists and turns; and her setting transports readers to a world removed from the complexities of contemporary society.
Allingham, Margery. Mystery Mile. 1929. London: Vintage, 2004.
Rowland, Susan. From Agatha Christie to Ruth Rendell: British Women Writers in Detective and Crime Fiction. Houndmills, UK: Palgrave, 2001.