‘I don’t know why one does go out of one’s way to oblige Money. it’s a funny thing and very wrong but everybody does it.’
I’m continuing my tour of late-period Margery Allingham with 1963’s The China Governess. I’m enjoying reading these books immensely, and I can’t even promise not to read the immensely ill-judged The Mind Readers before I am through.
We’ve seen how by the late 50s her series character Albert Campion had pretty much faded into the background, replaced in the limelight by the sparky Inspector Luke and the more realistic investigative power of the police force. I would argue that by the time we reach Hide My Eyes and The China Governess, it is Luke who is fading, with centre-stage occupied by the civilians concerned in the crime.
In The China Governess there is also a noticeable drift towards realism. It opens in a model council flat occupied by an elderly couple. The flat has been systematically vandalised in an apparently motiveless act of violence. It shocks the wife so much that she suffers a fatal stroke. The crime has brought the press and the local council – in the person of the campaigning Councillor Cornish – flocking.
Then in chapter two we are back in more familiar Allingham-land. Tim Kinnit, a brilliant young man (‘a typical young Oxford success-type’), is about to elope with his brilliant young girlfriend Julia. The Kinnits, Tim’s family, are a typical Allingham clan, very clever but hideously impractical when it comes to daily life. They have solved the servant problem by ordering their food from the local pub every day. They hate it, but there’s no cooking or washing up, so that’s a win. Meanwhile their servant cooks for herself in the annexe.
There is a cloud on Tim’s horizon. Julia’s father, a captain of industry, has raised concerns about Tim’s heritage. Tim is adopted, and not merely adopted – he seems to have been dredged up from the Turk Street Mile, the roughest slum in pre-Blitz London (and the location of the vandalised flat in chapter one). During the wartime mass evacuation of children from the East End Tim became separated from his mother (or was abandoned) in all the confusion. The wealthy Kinnits took him under their wing and Tim has never really questioned his roots. Once the implications of adoption – unknown family history of illness, etc. – have been raised, he feels honour-bound to try to find out about his birth family. Pretty soon he finds himself getting deep into trouble, and Campion and Luke are called in to advise.
There’s a bit of a ‘blood will out’ message to the book which I’m not entirely comfortable with. Tim, we see during the course of the book, takes after his father. When the vandal responsible for chapter one is revealed, there is a definite feeling that it’s largely the fault of his parentage. The Kinnit family has an in-built tendency to suppress the truth which was shown in the previous century when they airbrushed a famous murderess from history (this is one Miss Thyrza, the ‘china governess’ of the title).
As always, Charlie Luke has his own take on heredity:
‘Here is a boy – not a specially bred one. conditioned over the generations to withstand a bit of cossetting like a prize dog – but an ordinary tough boy same like I was, packed with his full complement of pride and passion, and he’s brought up to believe quite falsely that he’s inherited the blessed earth. Money, position, background, servants, prospects. He’s got the lot handed to him on a plate all for being his handsome self. He makes an effort and he’s successful as well… And then, at that very moment, what happens? A ruddy great Doubt as big as a house crops up.’
A second theme of The China Governess is privilege and the envy that it creates. Tim’s troubles are initiated by Basil Toberman, an alcoholic hanger-on to the Kinnits who despises Tim for the success which has been handed to him, and spreads malicious rumours about his parentage.
Even Campion encounters professional envy (as he seems to fairly often in these later books). The Kinnits engage the dignified but unsuccessful detective firm of Stalkey and Sons to look into Tim’s past, and one of the Sons assures Campion that they ‘haven’t had quite the advantages of some people’.
However, The China Governess is not all themes. It contains a bit of a master-stroke in misdirection. All the while, where you won’t even notice it (and you won’t) a killer is at work.
All in all, a worthy addition to the canon.
Mystery Mile: …the book’s central concern and theme is with the ancient question of nature v nurture ; the mystery of Timothy’s parentage forms the subject of both the book’s plot and its theme. ”It never pays to take a youngster out of his normal environment and bring him up in something plushy” the unpleasant Joe Stalkey claims.