Mystery Mile by Margery Allingham (1904 – 1966) was first published in 1930. It is the second in the Albert Campion series; I read the first back in 2015 and did not really care for it. Mystery Mile, however, is the first novel in which the character Albert Campion actually stars having the main rôle. Anywhere online where I saw anything about “Albert Campion,” I saw mention of how the character is a parody of or very similar to Lord Peter Wimsey of Dorothy L. Sayers’ work. I feel like this is some sort of literary-world mantra that has been repeated so much that most readers accept it as fact. In my reading, I can see how readers might draw that conclusion, but at the same time, I do not think the connection is all that strong. Campion is made to produce a lot of chatter, some of it learned, most of it just free-association. It annoys his fellow characters more than it annoys the reader, truthfully. The Wimsey character can keep up a similar monologue, but his is somehow both more intelligent and more forlorn. So, Allingham might have taken a certain tidbit from Sayers and spun it a little differently. I doubt Wimsey is the only source; I seem to recall Sherlock et al. having a bit of – seemingly – irreverent chatter.
Of the bunch of Golden Age mysteries and detective yarns that I have read, Allingham’s are the least serious. These are not quite the usual leisurely detecting that, say, are parodied in Leo Bruce’s novels. You know the ones – the murder happens, usually in a country manor home, and all the suspects sit around having brandy while the detective plays at various intellectual exercises. These are also not the sort of heavy, serious stories that feel like the fate of the world is directly waiting the conclusion of the case. These are romps, a word I do not use often. These are 1930s action/adventure mysteries. Indeed, and I am going to go out on a limb here, they are entertaining and fun.
Now, the amount of fun and entertainment mileage a reader gets from a novel like this will vary. The story itself is fairly well-written, no one will accuse Allingham of being a lazy writer or a writer that did not have a grasp of plot, setting, characters, etc. However, at times it seems a bit overwritten. At times, especially, in this particular novel, it seems the author focused too much on the main character and made the rest of the characters run around like panting obedient dogs behind him. Do not get me wrong, though, this novel does introduce us to a number of definitely interesting characters who stand on their own. We meet Campion’s manservant/houseman, Magersfontein Lugg. And Lugg’s associate Thos. T Knapp. The segments of the story involving this latter character light up because Knapp is such a colorful and lively creature. The scenes with his mother and their little apartment are also rather priceless. Knapp’s character does play on some of those archetypes and Allingham pulls in those elements with skill. Specifically, things like his accent, his skill set, his physical movements, etc.
Still, some of the other characters, though independent and not cardboard placeholders when taken on their own, seem unable to do otherwise than follow and obey the main character. They never really develop or show any particular insights or dynamic other than what their face value has already presented to the reader. These characters, though likeable in their own way, make for some tediousness.
My main complaint about this novel is a singular plot point. I feel like left alone, most of the plot is organized and reasonable. However, there is one piece that were it not so, would utterly collapse the entire book. So, it has to do with the early night in which guests arrive and a certain character, Anthony Datchett arrives – uninvited. The housemaid, Cuddy, lets him in and hands his card to the lady of the house. The rest of the household should, at this point, knowing full-well why all of them are gathered the heck out on this swamp, misty peninsula, punt this guy right back out into the night. Literally, why he is allowed entrance to the room, much less the house and why he is allowed to engage with the guests is inexplicable.
My second complaint is really a bit unfair and very minor. In the middle of the book, the main character is given a specific prop. Apparently, he is aware of what it signifies, but no one else is. And there is no way any reader could know because we do not live on the peninsula nor do we have a map of it. So, when Campion reveals its meaning – though the prop is alluded to a number of times and suspense is allowed to build over it – it falls flat. It makes sense, its logical. However, I think this could have been handled better and been an awesome prop as opposed to a fizzled out element.
“Two young females in this ‘ere flat,” said Lugg. “Well!”
“Shocking!” agreed Campion. “I don’t know what my wife would say.”
Marlowe stared at him. “Good Lord, you haven’t a wife, have you?” he said.
“No,” said Mr. Campion. “That’s why I don’t know what she’d say. Get your coats on, my little Rotarians.” — pg. 199, chapter 24
I laughed at the above. Some readers might find it stupid. Most of Campion’s punchlines are hit or miss, but this one tickled me. Allingham did provide several nicely done action scenes. There is a rooftop house-breaking rescue full of all the excitement readers could want. There is a nighttime escape and evasion late in the book which results in several reveals, but also things like gunfire and quicksand! There are comical moments as well: being introduced to the rear entrance to Campion’s apartment is priceless.
Overall, this is a serviceable enjoyable read. Readers ought not take it too seriously and have fun with the little romp. There is a dog who provides little levity and amusement, as well. I will very likely read the next in the series, which I already own. However, this is not a series I can gobble down – it definitely does better with breaks in between stories.