Traitor's Purse by Margery Allingham (Felony & Mayhem, October 2009)
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I will take a stand and say that the classic mysteries brought back into print by Felony & Mayhem Press (the brilliant publishing offshoot of downtown Manhattan's priceless Partners & Crime Bookstore) are one of the great small pleasures of my life. The ALP tends to buy the books in F&M's Vintage series for me, for special occasions or as a surprise, and these are always occasions for pure delight. Having read nearly every Agatha Christie novel ever written, it's wonderful to discover that I haven't reached the end of the treasure trove of early 20th century mysteries.
One of the pleasures of the Vintage mysteries is the sense of culture shock -- or cultural discovery -- the Western world in their pages presents. Unlike Christie, who has been consistently in print and most likely edited to remain comprehensible to contemporary readers, the works of Elizabeth Daly, Margery Allingham, and the like retain the cultural specifics of their time. This means that stories of 1940s New York or Britain contain not only familiar extinct delights like dressing for dinner, men with hats, and hired help in even fairly modest households, but also rituals and niceties I can only speculate about. Why is it odd that the paid companion spoke that way? What does the state of the front lawn signify? How do you know that someone is wearing clothes that don't belong to them? What does it mean when the protagonists exchange significant glances over the train schedule, or someone's shoes, or the contents of an umbrella stand or a corner shop? It's like entering an exotic, highly civilized foreign country -- whether New York or London, the citizens' habits and traditions are equally unfamiliar at a distance of 80 years.
The sense of dislocation is even more pronounced, but also eased somewhat, in Traitor's Purse, the 11th title in Margery Allingham's series featuring British policeman/gentleman sleuth Albert Campion. I'd never read any of the other Campion books when this one was gifted to me -- but luckily, in this volume Campion wakes up on page 1 suffering from amnesia, so he doesn't know his own backstory either. And not only is he trying to figure out who he is and what he does, but he's been plopped down in the middle of a mysterious matter of wartime National Security, and apparently someone wants him to hang for killing a cop. Then there's the matter of a woman named Amanda who aids him, whom he thinks may be his wife -- but who turns out to be his long-time fiance, who has just decided to call off the wedding. And in the meantime he has to make polite dinner party conversation with people whom he supposedly knows, so as not to give away his mission or his mental state.
It's all pleasantly excruciating, and of course it comes out all right. The villain is satisfyingly obvious, but the scheme is quite original and not something that would have occurred to me as a matter of national security. The competence of Campion, his "lower-class" right-hand man Lugg, and his left-hand girl Lady Amanda (who sticks by him in his mission despite his having strung her along romantically for eight years, apparently), is gratifying in the extreme.
My only quibble with the book comes at the end, when the plot has been foiled and Campion's memory has been finally restored. After realizing while amnesiac that he's been an ass to his fiance all this time, and having his deep feelings for her roiling under every action sequence, and after she's decided to take him back, their reconciliation is disappointingly perfunctory. But maybe that's a remnant of British wartime sensibilities too -- stiff upper lip, no big displays of emotion, all that sort of thing. It's a story profoundly of its time -- in its fears, its virtues, and its relationships. It makes for not only suspenseful reading, but a plunge into a different world.