While I’m on the subject of crime fiction, I’ve also been reading another Margery Allingham novel.
I’ve really enjoyed the half-dozen or so Allingham novels I’ve read so far but this one, Traitor’s Purse, is probably my favourite because of the device she uses to tell her tale. Crime writers are constantly thinking of new tricks for directing our attention away from the mechanics of the crime and onto the mechanics of the storytelling. Agatha Christie did this all the time: think of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or Ten Little Niggers. But then, Christie was a very mechanistic writer, constantly shaping her stories according to formal patterns that make no sense in reality (The A.B.C. Murders) or establishing artificially restricted settings that conveniently narrow the story options (Murder on the Orient Express). The reasons for this are fairly obvious. The basic crime story has a very simple and repetitive structure: a crime is committed, a restricted cast of suspects is identified, a detective dismisses various red herrings until arriving at the solution. There are variations that can be played on this formula: the nature of the crime, the cast of suspects, the character of the detective (in Christie’s case: fussy Belgian detective or chatty village spinster); but on the whole it is a simple and narrow formula. Every time you read or write a crime story you are essentially treading the same path, and some variety needs to be injected into the formula. If you are Christie, you play formal games with the structure of the story; if you are Dorothy L. Sayers or Benjamin Black, you use the formula as a basis for commenting upon the wider society; if you are Arthur Conan Doyle or Margery Allingham, you focus upon the idiosyncratic character of your detective.
Albert Campion is not so much a detective as an adventurer, almost in the mode of Leslie Charteris’s Simon Templar. He has mysteries to solve, but the mysteries are not always crimes. Even if a crime occurs, or is threatened (Look to the Lady, Mystery Mile), the novel tends to concern itself with the battle of wits between Campion and his often unseen opponent rather than on the business of sorting through clues to identify one among a limited cast of suspects. Naturally, therefore, in such a contest it is the character of Campion that is of prime interest. The danger, therefore, is that Campion can become too much of a Superman: he is well connected (possibly of royal blood), athletic, clever, has a bland manner that deceives those he comes into contact with, and he and Magersfontein Lugg have, between them, an encyclopedic knowledge of every minor villain in the country.
The novel opens with a man lying in a darkened hospital ward. He is suffering from concussion, and as a result has no memory of who he is or of how he got to be there. Through an open door he hears a policeman say he’s guarding a suspect in the murder of a policeman. Putting two and two together, the amnesiac realises he must be the criminal, and makes his escape. Outside the hospital he is picked up by a girl in a car who has clearly been watching for him. From what she and another passenger say, he gathers that his name is Albert Campion, but he has no idea who Albert Campion is, or what he is doing there. All he knows is that he is under threat because he is suspected of murder. The girl takes him to a place named Bridge where, he slowly comes to realise, he is in the middle of investigating something of vital national importance. The book was first published in 1941 and is set then, what he is investigating (on behalf of someone very senior in the government, though he isn’t exactly sure who that might be) could affect the outcome of the war, but he does not know what is under investigation, how far the investigation might have proceeded, what clues he has so far gathered. There is a sense of tremendous urgency, and the number 15 seems to be important, but that is all he has to start with. And throughout there is the sense that he himself is under threat and could be arrested at any moment.
What this means, of course, is that Allingham can start her story in media res, because her detective is suddenly as ignorant as her readers. One of the points about the traditional English detective story (and in this I think the likes of Christie and Sayers and Allingham stand in direct line with the works of M.R. James and the traditional English ghost story) is that they are concerned with knowledge as a sort of privilege, a class system of intellectual authority. The detective pursues a quest for knowledge because such knowledge gives him power over the wrongdoer; the reader shares the quest on the assumption that they too will correctly interpret the runes and thereby similarly attain knowledge and power. James’s seekers of knowledge pursue their quest into the arcana of the supernatural, detectives into the arcana of crime, but the quest follows much the same route to much the same ends. But the detective always starts with the advantage of prior knowledge, the experience of being a detective, the authority thus conferred upon him. Amnesia wipes out that advantage; in this case the detective has no prior knowledge, even of his own character. Thus everything he learns becomes at once mysterious and potentially revelatory; he is learning to read this crime story at exactly the same moment that the reader is doing the same.
Of course, Allingham has her irritating quirks. She has a fondness for ancient secrets that cast an odd shadow into the present of the novel (the ritual of the Gyrth Chalice in Look to the Lady, the inheritance of land rights to an obscure Balkan statelet in Sweet Danger) and massive criminal conspiracies, often transnational in character, led by a mysterious mastermind (Savanake in Sweet Danger, Simister in Mystery Mile). There is something in these repeated motifs that shifts the books towards the fantastic, a realm of pickled knights and ghosts and mysterious rituals and centuries-old codes and alternative realities. Nevertheless, although they so often seem to be necessary to kick-start her adventures, I don’t find them convincing. There is just such an ancient conspiracy at the heart of Traitor’s Purse, a traditional English village that is effectively an independent realm ruled over by a shadowy organisation (part local council, part academic institution) that has over the centuries acquired vast wealth and power. It’s all nonsense, and it reads like nonsense. Yet there is also something subtle and clever in here. The plot that Campion finds himself investigating and that might alter the course of the war is a German plan to undermine British currency by flooding the country with counterfeit notes. There was, indeed, such a plan, known as Operation Bernhard, though it wasn’t made public until after the war and Allingham wouldn’t have known about it at the time she was writing her novel.
In the end, of course, Campion receives another blow to the head and so recovers his memory, though in a neat extra twist in doing so he forgets all that he has learned during the course of the novel so far. All ends dramatically and happily, as such things are meant to do. But what makes this a particularly successful Campion novel as far as I am concerned is the fact that for once the struggle to make sense of what is going on is shared by both reader and character. It’s a trick that couldn’t be done more than once, but it is pleasing that Allingham did do it, and do it so well.