Ex Libris: Detective Albert Campion Mysteries

“In common with most writers, he had evolved his own technique for making bearable the drudgery of his abominable trade.” ― Margery Allingham, The Tiger in the Smoke

Margery Allingham belongs to

what is now described as the “Golden Age of Detective Fiction,” which primarily refers to mystery writers in England from 1920 to 1940 who adhered to similar conventions; however, this discovery surprised me, as after reading two of her most popular novels featuring her prominent detective, Albert Campion, they did not seem to fit in the typical murder mystery genre. Intrigue certainly abounds, but these books are much more tinged in suspense than the classic “whodunit” of Agatha Christie. In fact, in The Tiger in the Smoke, there is never any question of who the murderer is, and the victims are rather inconsequential and easily forgotten in the drama of the plot.

While Traitor’s Purse falls in line as number 11 in the Albert Campion series, it was luckily my first as the novel opens with Campion waking up in a hospital room with severe amnesia; since I had no prior knowledge of him, it was fascinating to experience the amnesia with the protagonist. Campion knows nothing about his life, including his name, prior to that moment — and nor did I. His only semblance of a memory is the intense impression that something cataclysmic will occur unless he prevents it.

The third person narration is told only from his point of view, and I thus journeyed with him as he blindly rediscovers the friends and colleagues upon whom his life centers, all while maintaining a successful bluff that he is proceeding with the vital assignment he can’t remember. The unintended benefit of piecing his life together only added to the suspense of the mysterious mission upon which the future of the British nation hangs by a thread.

This self-discovery alongside the protagonist was also a fascinating character study since Campion must also learn the sort of person he is by observing those around him in order to shape an opinion of his actions hitherto. Campion is finally faced with the evidence that he is not the man he should be, and his growing dismay at the portrait forming before him indicates that, should his memory ever be restored, his amnesia will prove a pivotal shift for his life and relationships … provided that the consequences of his former behavior are not irreversible and that the mission is successful.

The Tiger in the Smoke is volume 14 in Campion’s chronicles. Many small, intriguing side mysteries accompany the main plot focused on a manhunt for a murdering sociopath on the loose in fog-obscured London. The fog itself takes center stage as a primary character in the drama, as it is due to the haze that the killer can remain loose for so long.

In Alexander McCall Smith’s introduction to the Folio Society edition, he writes, “Margery Allingham’s achievement is to combine an atmospheric account of London in the post-war period with both strong and vivid characterization and considerable dramatic tension. The atmosphere of London is painted with an accomplished brush … The fog, curling about corners and penetrating doorways and basements, is always there: an ideal medium for Havoc, the psychopathic murderer, to sneak about it.”

The mystery centers on a woman’s late husband, presumed dead in WWII, seemingly making appearances around London just prior to her remarriage. As Detective Campion steps in to unravel the mystery, a triple murder intensifies the stakes. How many deaths will transpire before the police find the killer amid the swirling fog?

Allingham’s writing is superb and as enjoyable as her suspenseful plots. She transports readers back to 1940s Britain in earnest, recreating a world that readers will not wish to leave, yet one they will be happy to appreciate from afar.