Cargo of Eagles was, sadly, Margery Allingham’s final book. After her death, her husband Philip Youngman Carter finished the story.
It is set in the swampy coastal town of Saltey, ‘an ancient bolt hole, old London’s eastern emergency exit’, a place which has for centuries been a secret way in and out of the capital and an important channel for contraband.
Mortimer Kelsey, a young American historian, has been commissioned by Allingham’s ‘universal uncle’ Albert Campion to keep an eye on the place. Mortimer is delighted to do so, firstly because he believes the place offers a unique insight into early modern social history, and secondly because he has fallen for Saltey’s newest resident, Dr Dido Jones. Dido has inherited a local property from a patient, much to the disgruntlement of the local poison-pen brigade.
Mr Campion’s interest in Saltey centres on one James Teague, a latter-day pirate who just after the War made off with a yachtful of booty, and promptly vanished after his recent release from prison. Teague is believed to have buried his treasure somewhere in the town, and may be coming back for it. Mortimer Kelsey is sent to look for the dashing pirate or his one-eyed shipmate Target. Instead he finds Hector Askew, Dido’s lawyer and rival suitor, dead in a chair.
The ensuing murder-mystery-cum-treasure-hunt brings together spies, juvenile delinquents, dodgy locals, a minor poet and assorted policemen. On paper this sounds slightly farcical but in fact the overall tone is slightly gritty and deadpan.
Cargo of Eagles is an interesting beast. It marked another change of direction for Campion. Allingham’s hero is getting on:
over-thin and the careful veil of affable vacuity which had begun, like his large spectacles, as a protection and had become a second skin, had robbed him of good looks
Nonetheless, he plays a more active role than in other Allingham titles from the 60s, although Mortimer Kelsey handles the more physical jobs. Campion’s wartime role in intelligence is at the centre of the plot, and he liaises with L. C. Corkran from his old department – characterised in Smileyesque fashion as:
old ladies sticking little silver knives into each other’s backs.
Astonishingly, Allingham’s favourite policeman Charlie Luke – an increasingly dominant figure in her work – does not make an appearance in this novel. Instead Stanislaus Oates, Campion’s original police collaborator, comes out of retirement to advise his old friend. In a quirky fashion reminiscent of the earlier books, he has set up a private office in the basement of an exclusive London club.
The most striking feature of the book is the authors’ engagement with popular yoof culture. Saltey is beset by yobbish teenagers on motorbikes. Sometimes this is a little bit embarrassing…
‘If you find life a bind don’t you bang around and get yourself a rave? It’s something to do. better than a caff or a godawful youth club.’
…sometimes it more effectively captures the menace of gangs:
…the total occupation of the house by apparently militant youths dressed in what looked like uniforms cast off by SS troopers or Austrian Hussars made her nervous and at times actively frightened. The rockers, who by definition ride more powerful machines than mods and who make a display of living dangerously, had established themselves in the main bar shortly after noon and occupied it exclusively by string arm tactics…
Another modern touch, of course, is the appearance of a female doctor.
P. C. Simmonds smirked. ‘All arranged, miss. Should be here any minute. I phoned for it when I found I couldn’t get a doctor – I mean when Dr Thornton couldn’t . . .’ His voice trailed away and in the flickering light his face showed a brick red. ‘I mean before you came along to give a hand.’
The ending of the book is curiously amoral and I feel Campion’s decisions are quite out of character. Edmund Crispin claimed to be one of the few readers able to ‘see the join’ between Allingham’s text and Youngman Carter’s, but I think it’s extremely visible in the final pages.
Final destination: A keeper
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.