Sunday, April 20, 2008

Magery Allingham’s Sweet Danger

Allingham, Margery. Sweet Danger. New York: Felony and Mayhem Press, 2007.

(This book was originally published in 1933.)

The Connecticut mystery book club will be discussing this book on April 26th. However, I plan to be staring at the ocean, sans computer, gin and tonic in hand, book in lap, in Cape May, N.J. on April 26th. Thus, I decided I’d better read and write about this one now.

First of all, I want to say hurray for Margery Allingham! I’ve been familiar with the name all my life, but (as is the case with so many mystery writers) I’ve never bothered to read any of her works. Secondly, I’d like to say that this book group has gotten off to a great start when it comes to “reading all over the mystery map,” as this book couldn't be more different from the first one we read.

So, why do I say “hurray for Margery Allingham?” Maybe it’s because she has a male protagonist who is unmatched in brilliance (as so many are in these sorts of mysteries), but who is also young. None of this wise, middle-aged, somewhat sexless detective who relies not only on his intellect but also on a lifetime of experience that has taught him what humans are likely to do in any given situation for Allingham. No, in Albert Campion, we have a young man, not yet thirty, just getting his feet wet as far as life experiences are concerned. Campion is a character who is truly playing the game of Life, learning as he goes along, and seeming to enjoy it all immensely (even when he comes dangerously close to losing it all to Death).

Then again, maybe it’s her extraordinarily complicated plot. I have to admit I almost came close to “boo-ing” rather than “hurray-ing” this aspect of the book. I had to keep re-reading pages from the beginning, because I just couldn’t figure out exactly what it was that Campion and his friends were doing when we first meet him through the eyes of his friend Guffy Randall, who comes across them during a stay in the French Riviera. However, by the time I’d gotten to the end of the book to find I’d been led on a romp that included a nearly-impoverished family on the verge of reclaiming a birthright that will certainly secure future generations; brilliant use of mistaken identity; a wonderfully enigmatic poetical clue; a bad guy whose nickname is “Peaky,” because he was “…a most extraordinary-looking fellow with a widow’s peak that almost touched the bridge of his nose, “ (p. 22); as well as a truly mad, mad doctor; all confusion is forgiven. After all, how can a book that provides so many plot elements possibly be anything but confusing? It all comes together in the end, though.

Perhaps it’s Allingham’s ability with description and detail that makes me want to shout for joy. For instance, she’s already told us that Guffy is a snob, and thus, we assume his friends must be, too. However, their snobbishness is beautifully portrayed in this short passage:

A gloom settled over the party. That a man could live for forty years with a cellar full of priceless wine, and drink it, perhaps even – sacrilegious thought! – get drunk upon it, without realizing its value, was, to Eager-Wright and Guffy at least, a tragic and terrible discovery. (p. 84)

Then again, it may be her wonderful sense of humor. I don’t even know where to begin when it comes to describing this. Hers is not a laugh-out-loud sort of humor (thank goodness, as I was reading this book mostly on airplanes), but a subtle, wry look at her characters and their predicaments. She has this beautiful chapter when Campion goes off to visit an insurance agency that could easily be a business located in one of Donald Trump’s edifices today. Quite obviously, Allingham had her own opinions about that sort of overindulgence in business, and she chooses to sneak in her opinions by employing a dark, cutting humor. This same dark, cutting humor also shows up in her characters’ dialogues with each other, such as this one:

“Talking of poetry,” said Mr. Campion, unexpectedly, as the three young men continued thoughtfully across the heath toward the mill, “many a useful thought has burned in verse that Shelley would have spurned. Likewise, the stuff to put your pennies on is not concealed in Tennyson.”

“Interesting, no doubt,” commented Eager-Wright good-humouredly, “but in the circumstances not very helpful. This is no time for blathering Campion.” (p. 95)

It’s funny, of course, in the way Eager-Wright talks down to his friend. It’s also funny, however, because, Allingham and her readers know that Campion isn’t really “blathering.” Plenty of the conversation throughout this book runs along the same sorts of lines.

Then again, none of the above may matter, and it just might be that I’m "hurray-ing" over nothing more than the wonderful character Allingham has given us in Amanda Fitton, a member of the family that runs the Suffolk mill where the majority of the action takes place. She’s bright, strong, courageous (a real fighter), a wise businesswoman, and Campion is smitten with her. One gets the feeling that Campion and his mates would have blundered and all been dead without her, as would her brother. Not only that, but she’s very likeable and very human, the sort of heroine to whom I’m always attracted (and, throughout my life, have wished I could be).

And that’s one way in which this book is so very different from our first mystery, Hammett’s The Glass Key. I have not yet read any more Hammett, but my guess would be that I could read all he’s written and not find a single woman like Amanda Fitton. In Hammett’s world, despite the fact that the two books were written in the same decade, three-dimensional female characters do not exist. They may be physically striking, like Amanda. However, men are drawn to them merely for their looks, no matter their characters, and not because they are also clever and bold, the way Campion is drawn to Amanda. Female characters aren’t the only ones who are different, though. By the end of the book, we know what makes Albert Campion tick, how and what he thinks about many things, much more than we ever knew about Ned Beaumont by the end of Hammett’s book.

Also, the violence in this book is nowhere near as severe as it was in The Glass Key. Allingham’s violence seems almost to have been included as an afterthought, because, after all, one can’t have dead bodies without some violence. Hammett’s book seemed to center around humankind’s natural tendency towards seediness and violence.

(I think I may have just inadvertently described some of the big differences between hard-boiled crime fiction and crime fiction from The Golden Age of British Mystery?)

Granted, at times, Allingham does rely a bit on convenience over credibility. For instance, a character to whom we have not been introduced suddenly plays a key role about halfway through the book. He is later just sort of explained away (perhaps he's someone who has shown up in other books in the Campion series?). Likewise, the mad doctor is a bit of a convenience (not to mention a character who could easily have stepped right out of the collection of Arthur Machen stories I recently read). Nevertheless, this is fiction (and mystery at that) and needs to be forgiven for embracing such conveniences. Besides, nothing in this book could top the sorts of conveniences to be found in G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries.

All-in-all, a fairly perfect specimen of the genre. Oh, and one last question: wouldn’t you love to work for a company called Felony and Mayhem Press? It seems I need to get cracking if I’m going to keep up with all the great stuff they’re publishing.


Anonymous said...

We will miss you at the book club discussion but I will be envying your gin and surf time.

I have not read The Thin Man, but my husband is a big Hammett fan and says that his view of women changes at that point and the darkness of the worldview lifts as well. Apparently The Thin Man is quite funny and prompted by his falling in love with Lillian Hellman and then he never wrote much of anything after that. At least that's my understanding.

I will refrain from saying more about Sweet Danger until the meeting, other than I enjoyed the ride of this book more than I thought I would. I've never thought of myself as a "cozy" girl - I think that's what you call this lighter type of mystery.

Anonymous said...

This sounds delicious! I'm looking for a good mystery to take on the airplane with me tomorrow, and this could be it.

Great review!

Anonymous said...

Emily - I shall officially reply after the bookclub meeting, but I'm glad you liked the book. And have a fantastic holiday! Try the bar at the Congress Hall Inn, we really liked it.

Rebecca H. said...

Have a great time on your vacation! I enjoyed your review of the book -- I think the thing I liked most about the book is the sense of humor -- I did laugh out loud a time or two. It took me a while to get in the spirit of the book, but once I did, I had a fabulous time.

Anonymous said...

Basically, you have nailed all the points that I find so enjoyable in the Campion books: the humour and the writing and the fun of it all. As Dorothy says, once you've decided in you're up for the ride, it's a lot of fun.
Mike, in contrast, absolutely hated it to the point where he could scarcely bear to finish it. He didn't find it all believable, didn't like the class interaction between Campion and Lugg, didn't like the writing style, didn't get the humour.
If you want more of Amanda (and I agree, she is a delightful heroine and it says good things about Campion that he's not interested in beautiful but dull Mary), she's in 'The Fashion in Shrouds' and 'Traitor's Purse'.

Emily Barton said...

Lisa, well, now I guess I basically just have to read all of Hammett, don't I? Amazing what love will do to a guy.

RR, it's perfect airplane reading. Hope you thought so, too.

MFS, wish I'd been there to argue with Mike. Oh well...
And thanks for recommending it for the group and for letting me know which others feature Amanda. I checked at our local Borders recently and noticed they had two others, but I don't remember the titles.
We went into the Congress Hotel (fabulous place!), but they were having a wedding and opted for a different bar that evening, although I was tempted to go back to the one we'd discovered the previous evening called Martini Beach, which had these delicious cucumber martinis that I imagine would be most refreshing on a really hot summer day.

Dorr, we had a super time (though not long enough). The hotel where we stayed allowed pets, and I imagined you and Hobs and Muttboy might have a great time there.