Look to the Lady by Margery Allingham
You may recall that last November I went down to London for an afternoon hosted by literary agents PFD to celebrate the authors Margery Allingham and Eric Ambler (see here). Barry Pike, the chairman of the Margery Allingham Society recommended Look to the Lady as the best place to start with her Albert Campion novels. Campion originally appeared as a comedic supporting character in The Crime at Black Dudley, (1929) and was so loved, Allingham’s US publishers asked for him to get his own novel(s). So Campion got to star in Mystery Mile (1930) and Look to the Lady was his third outing in 1931.
It begins with a chap in London being given a shilling by a policeman so he won’t have to arrest him for vagrancy. Persival St John Wykes Garth, known as Val, thanks the policeman and is directed to a safe place where he finds a letter with his name on, and eventually ends up at the residence of Albert Campion, evading being kidnapped in a taxi along the way, and the door opens to show:
A tall thin young man with a pale inoffensive face, and vague eyes behind enormous horn-rimmed spectacles smiled out at him with engaging friendliness. He was carefully, not to say fastidiously, dressed in evening clothes, but the correctness of his appearance was somewhat marred by the fact that in his hand he held a string to which was attached a child’s balloon of a particularly vituperant pink. (p24)
It turns out that Campion’s interest in Val has been piqued by recent news items involving the Gyrth Chalice – a priceless cup that his family has guarded secretly for generations upon generations. Val will shortly be initiated into the secrets of the chalice on his 25th birthday – if he makes up with his father. Gyrth’s rather bohemian aunt has allowed herself to be photographed in the press with a chalice, and Campion thinks that professional criminals will seek to steal it for a secret client. Val challenges Campion as to his interest in the affair:
Mr Campion hesitated. ‘It’s rather difficult to explain,’ he said. ‘I am – or rather I was – a sort of universal uncle, a policeman’s friend and master-crook’s factotum. What it really boiled down to, I suppose, is that I used to undertake other people’s adventures for them at a small fee. If necessary I can give you references from Scotland Yard, unofficial, of course, or from almost any other authority you might care to mention. But last year my previous uncle, His Grace the Bishop of Devizes, the only one of the family who’s ever apprecicated me, by the way, died and left me the savings of an episcopal lifetime. Having become a capitalist, I couldn’t very well go on with my fourpence-an-hour business, so I’ve been forced to look for suitable causes to which I could donate a small portion of my brains and beauty. That’s one reason.’ (p36)
Val and Campion escape London to Suffolk and the ancestral Gyrth estate by the village of Sanctuary and Val is reunited with his father. There we meet Val’s sister younger sister Penny, who takes a shine to Campion. Penny, with her friend Beth will prove to be useful plucky sorts.
Things get complicated soon when Lady Pethwick, Val’s aunt, is found dead. So Campion has two cases – preventing the chalice from being stolen and solving a murder. There is one other main character I haven’t mentioned yet and that is Magersfontain Lugg.
The girl looked at him incredulously. ‘What is that man Lugg?’ she said.
Her companion adjusted his spectacles. ‘It depends how you mean,’ he said. ‘A specied, definitely human, I should say, oh yes, without a doubt. Status – none. Past – filthy. Occupation – my valet.’
Penny laughed. ‘I wondered if he were your keeper,’ she suggested. (p91)
Lugg is good value for money, and I did wonder if he was the inspiration for Jock, the manservant-thug in the Charlie Mortdecai books.
I’m not going to delve any further into the plot, for it does get very complicated, involving all manner of shenanigans. Some fear that supernatural forces are also at work, which adds another layer of intrigue until explained – or not. Campion is able to move things along by his being incredibly well-connected in circles both high and low, legitimate and shady; it also turns out he is a friend of the Gypsies and they will come to his aid when summoned later.
What a fun and complex character Campion is! Of noble birth, a friendly and inoffensive sort, yet obviously brainy under his wacky exterior and able to get things done; an assertive enabler with funds who lives life to the full – he reminded me a little of Buchan’s hero, Richard Hannay, but in comedy form. He is a bit of an enigma, but a nice one – and I shall enjoy getting to know him (and Lugg) better.
Allingham’s writing is playful and full of detail – I adored the colour ‘vituperant pink’ in my first quote above – not just any old pink – a pink that inflicts blame, censure. She is also renowned for including elements of what would later be called psychogeography, particuarly of East Anglia where she lived, in her text.
The village of Sanctuary lay in that part of Suffolk which the railway has ignored and the motorists have not yet discovered.
Barry was right. I enjoyed Look to the Lady very much indeed. Here’s looking forward to my next dose of Allingham. (9/10)
* * * * *
Source: Publisher via PFD – Thank you
Margery Allingham – Look to the Lady (1931). Vintage Books reprint. Paperback, 250 pages.