I’m doing some fairly intense research reading at the moment, so I’m interspersing it with something a little lighter for relaxation. As part of that, I’ve just settled into another jag of reading Margery Allingham. First up, because I’m reading these books in no particular order, is Cargo of Eagles, which also happens to be her last book. Or rather, it was the novel she left unfinished when she died in 1966; it was finished by her husband, Youngman Carter, and published in 1968. I believe there were a couple of later books entirely written by Carter, though I’m not sure if these were based on incomplete manuscripts or outlines that Allingham had left.
When you know that about a book going in, you find yourself inevitably looking for the join, and in this case I couldn’t spot it. Or rather, there are a number of possibilities, but nothing definite. For a start this is, in any case, late Allingham, and she had by this point gone off the boil somewhat. Campion had grown older (she always set her stories in the present, rather than the past, so she couldn’t revisit early episodes in his career), by now he should be well past retirement age. The closest she comes to acknowledging this is that he is absent for a large part of the story, and the focus is on a younger surrogate, Morty Kelsey. By trying to be contemporary, she makes part of the story about Mods and Rockers, though she doesn’t really get what they were about, and anyway, even in 1968 when the book finally appeared, they must have seemed old hat. And the ending feels both clunky and rushed, as though Campion knew the secret all along, in which case there was no need for the whole fol-de-rol of the story; but then, I’ve felt pretty much the same about other lateish works that I’ve read.
But put that aside, this is another of those little pocket universes that she created throughout her career, as in Traitor’s Purse, for instance, or More Work for the Undertaker. In other words it is a little bit of England that seems to be emotionally and culturally cut off from the rest of the country, the rest of the modern world. In this instance it is Saltey, a little bit of coastal marshland in Essex that isn’t on the way to anywhere. It was once the haunt of smugglers, and still carries on the practice; there’s a local myth of a demon that once caused mayhem throughout the village, and everyone is still happy to carry on believing it; and the families recorded in a centuries-old map are still the prominent families of the area, who have intermarried and and maintained their own particular secrets and rivalries down all the years. This is prime Allingham territory, where the particularities of place tend to outweigh the necessities of contemporary realism.
Into this individual setting, Allingham introduces buried treasure, a famous thief who has just got out of prison after 20 years, a mysterious thug who was once the accomplice of the thief and now seems to be back in the area, poison pen letters, a couple of murders, Mods and Rockers creating mayhem, an unlikely bequest, and Albert Campion on a mission for a shadowy secret service outfit. It all ties together, just about, though to say the pudding had been over-egged would be to underplay quite how much she tries to cram into the plot. And Campion is here more shadowy, less distinct a character than he had been in earlier books, as if Allingham has trouble picturing her aging hero in this particular milieu. Though the magnificent Lugg, more ancient even that Campion though you wouldn’t know it, remains as sharp and vivid as ever.
Yet for what I wanted, it was exactly right. A book I finished in a day, which is practically unheard of for me.