News of a new Albert Campion novel from Severn House prompted me to re-read an earlier continuation of the series. I am a long-time fan of Campion, dating back to the 80s series starring Peter Davison.
Campion originated as a ‘silly ass’ detective in 1920s, grew into a dilettante sleuth in the 1930s, had a difficult war in British Intelligence, and matured into a police consultant in the 40s and 50s. By the time his creator Margery Allingham died in 1966 he was pushing 70 (Campion was one of the few sleuths who actually aged with their creator) and pursuing criminals on the basis of personal interest. The Campion books were originally continued by Allingham’s husband Philip ‘Pip’ Youngman Carter in the 60s. Of the three Youngman Carter books, one was half-written by Allingham before her death; the remaining two were merely influenced by her.
The backdrop for Mr Campion’s Farthing is Inglewood Turrets, a house-cum-museum run by Miss Charlotte Cambric as a sort of latter-day salon. Charlotte’s ancestor Sir Edwin Cambric was a Victorian patron of the arts who entertained actors, writers and other luminaries in high style. The house has been preserved in full Victorian style and now entertains film stars, pop singers and foreign dignitaries. It is the foreign dignitaries who explain the interest of the secret service in Inglewood. One in particular, Russian scientist Vassily Kopeck, is especially fascinating at the beginning of his story. Kopeck has vanished from Inglewood without officially defecting, and hence the authorities from both sides of the Iron Curtain are after him.
Campion, in his guise as a former intelligence man, is brought to Inglewood by a coded letter, and stays to look after the interests of Charlotte Cambric.
Charlotte is menaced not only by the Russians (led by the coldly unpleasant Maryak) but also by the commercial machinations of Clifford Denmark, who wants to acquire Inglewood for his hotel empire. Denmark’s seemingly foppish number two, Hilary Wyke, is a veritable encyclopedia of dirty tricks (including a fake smallpox scare and blocked sewers). A stamp-collecting private detective called Nascott complicates matters by playing each side against the other.
Campion is helped by his son Rupert, all grown up and working as an actor, and his old intelligence boss, the spiky L. C. ‘Elsie’ Corkran.
The race is on to locate Kopeck and find out why he has gone underground. In fact – is he literally underground?
Unsurprisingly, there are echoes of Allingham’s concerns throughout the book. Many of her stories involve households which are dominated by Victorians – Allingham often reminded us that Campion himself was born in the Victorian era. The Faradays in Police at the Funeral and the Palinodes in More Work for the Undertaker are all locked in the past. Although the real Victorians in Farthing are dead, the household itself is preserved in aspic.
Clifford Denmark recalls the dominant industrialists Lee Aubrey of Traitor’s Purse and Brett Savanake in Sweet Danger, impersonally pulling strings from their offices.
Small business owners harried by the forces of officialdom – income tax, sewers needing modernising at Lottie’s expense, rates – recall the unfortunate Cassands in The Beckoning Lady (and presumably to some extent represent the Youngman Carters – Allingham had her own troubles with the taxman, and the couple maintained a country house at Tolleshunt D’Arcy in Essex).
I sometimes wonder if the government and the lawyers aren’t in league with each other to ruin the country. It’s like a protection racket designed to frustrate anyone who is trying to make an honest living.
I think you could probably even identify a theme of young people and old people coexisting with no intervening generation in the relationship between Charlotte Cambric and her free-spirited niece Perdita.
There is even a passing mention of Guffy Randall, the ‘hero’ of the first Campion book The Crime at Black Dudley, and later Campion’s brother-in-law.
Some paragraphs are pure Allingham:
…there was a clatter of hooves and a resplendent Victorian equipage turned into the courtyard. It was a brightly painted vehicle of the type now seen only on show grounds, drawn by a high-stepping chestnut. Between the enormous wheels Rupert sat erect in an eye-catching red and yellow striped blazer, whilst Perdita wore a prim blouse with puffed sleeves, straw boater tipped over her innocent blue eyes. The picture was ridiculous, gay, and, despite its deliberate antiquity, extraordinarily modern.
But the majority of the book reads more like a Le Carré – retired spies still playing an active role in espionage, being very academic about it (‘Redolet lucerna, so to speak’), and using bits of trade jargon (‘Have they made the soft approach?’). There are many allusive conversations between professionals that we are left to decode (unlike Le Carré, these cryptic conversations do not form the majority of the book…). This spy-stuff seems more obviously Youngman Carter’s own style, and presumably reflects his own interests as a reader.
He doesn’t seem to have Allingham’s all-encompassing empathy, but he’s not writing that kind of book. This is a Cold War thriller making the best use it can of a series character from an earlier age. Campion plays a more active role than he had in the later Allingham books, and I sense the author might have preferred a younger man in the lead.
Still, the macguffin is a good one, there is plenty of interest in the setting, and I think this is a respectable, if laid-back, thriller.
See also: The Passing Tramp on Mr Campion’s Farthing: ‘I couldn’t help wondering if one character, Felix Perdreau (“a theatrical figure more elegant than reality by the merest fraction“), wasn’t a bit of a self-portrait by Youngman Carter, who is known to have philandered quite extensively ‘
I am entering Mr Campion’s Farthing in the 2014 Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge (book set in England category).
Final destination: A keeper
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.