‘I’m catching my train in fifty minutes and a thousand corpses all in coronets won’t stop me. You – er – you only have the one at the moment, I take it?’
‘Yus, only the one,’ Lugg agreed absently, adding reproachfully, as he recovered himself, ‘now’s not the time to be funny, neither. You’ve ‘ad your fun abroad, I dare say. This is serious. A stiff is still a stiff in this country. There’ll be a lot of questions asked.’
‘So I should imagine,’ murmured Mr Campion dryly. ‘However, compared with mere warfare, you all seemed to have toughened up considerably.’This month, the Crimes of the Century crowd has converged on 1945. We have seen elsewhere how the early years of the War had little or no impact on crime fiction, but by its end the effects were definitely showing.
Allingham’s sleuth Mr Campion, looking older and wiser after a strenuous few years abroad, had returned to his Bottle Street flat to begin six weeks’ leave from a war which everyone knows has pretty much been won. His first impression is that London is less changed than he had feared after the Blitz. So little changed, in fact, that his homecoming bath is interrupted by the discovery of a body. His old ‘valet’, the disreputable Magersfontein Lugg (currently working as an ‘Eavy Rescue man), has taken the liberty of hiding a corpse in his bedroom.
Campion’s first impressions of London are wrong, of course. Very much has changed and he now finds himself in…
The era of elegant make-do… Here was improvised grandeur, temporary tastefulness.
The backdrop is of a society being rewritten in front of everyone’s eyes. Some are clinging on to the treasures of the past (which seem trivial to the younger generation), but most are moving on. His generation was the last hurrah of a way of life that will never be recaptured. Not only because the money has gone, but also because life is much harsher. He finds younger people far more practical and far less dilatory – married and widowed in a matter of weeks. The War has changed people and there is a rift opening up.
‘That’s the devil of it over here just now. We’re all mixed up in this country; the people who are actively fighting are living at home alongside the people who aren’t.’
The mystery centres on a charmed circle of people surrounding Johnny Carados, aristocrat and RAF hero. The corpse in Campion’s flat is that of a needy ex-lover who apparently killed herself in his bed when Carados’s forthcoming wedding was announced. But obviously things are not that simple, as Campion finds when he meets his old friends Oates and Yeo of Scotland Yard.
‘Holly’s got his hands full at the moment, sir.’ Yeo looked uncomfortable and Oates became studiously incurious.
The Campion in Coroner’s Pidgin is a changed man. Already we can see in him the less engaged, dispassionate observer that he becomes in the 50s. Rather than driving events, he takes a back seat and follows along as the police unravel the conspiracy. In fact, as is often noted about The Tiger in the Smoke, he doesn’t really need to be in the book at all. His own story is more of a framing sub-plot. All he wants to do is catch a train, but his departure keeps being postponed by events. The ending is notably sweet, and must have struck many a chord amongst its readership.
First published by Heinemann, 1945
This edition, Penguin Books, 1957
Source: The Past Offences Allingham Collection
Final destination: A keeper