Mr Campion’s Farthing by Youngman Carter

Mr Campion's Farthing cover

Mr Campion’s Farthing by Youngman Carter was published in 1969, three years after his wife Margery Allingham’s death. He had completed her unfinished book Cargo of Eagles and decided to write more books featuring Albert Campion, but he only wrote two before his own death. Apparently he had always helped out with the plots of Allingham’s books, I can easily believe that as this book is certainly not close to being the worst I’ve read. It’s very much of its time, featuring Russians and an attempt by one of the characters to defect during a trip to London. That sort of thing often seemed to be happening in the 1960s and 70s as I recall – back in the ‘good old days’!

Anyway – this book is fairly well written although a bit bizarre in parts, but it would have been better if Campion hadn’t been involved at all. He’s obviously used as a means of obtaining more sales. In this book though Campion has reverted to being the young Campion of the early days before he matured and actually developed a personality. It’s not enough just to describe a character as having large horn-rimmed spectacles, and more or less leave it at that. I’ll probably give this one a 3 on Goodreads but 2.5 would be nearer the mark.

The Oaken Heart by Margery Allingham

Margery Allingham was asked by some American friends to write about the experiences of life in her Essex village during the run up to the outbreak of war – and the next couple of years. I’ve been wanting to get my hands on a copy of this one for some years and at last I gave up hope of finding it in a secondhand bookshop and resorted to the internet. I was particularly interested in this one because for a couple of years I lived in Essex, in Braintree which is a town just 15 miles from Tolleshunt-Darcy where Allingham lived. Of course due to the need for secrecy the village was given a different name – she chose to call it Auburn after a village in an Oliver Goldsmith poem.

She makes it clear that the locals have a certain character, they would possibly be seen as being a bit odd compared with people elsewhere in England as the East Anglians are a bit of a breed apart, but when you get down to it where the war is concerned they behave much the same as the rest of Britain. Although that ‘eastern’ character is recognisable in the whole of the east coast of the UK I think. I was quite surprised by how naive they seemed to be though – regarding Neville Chamberlain’s negotiations with Hitler. They gave him a lot of credit and placed great trust in him, so when the inevitable happened and we ended up at war with Germany AGAIN – they were truly shocked.

This misplaced trust was almost certainly because the village had suffered badly from the loss of a generation of young men in World War I. They probably just couldn’t bear the thought of it all happening again, and that the death of those youngsters had been for nothing. In fact there were hardly any children in the village for that reason. When Churchill took over they all sighed with relief and Allingham judged his character perfectly I think.

For some reason the villagers all had great faith that mainland European countries would be able to see the Nazis off, particularly the French. I cannot fathom why they thought the French would be great fighters.

Auburn went from being a sleepy rural idyll to a place of constant night time noise as hundreds of Nazi bombers flew overhead under cover of darkness, on their way to nearby London. Inevitably bombs began to fall on Auburn and the surrounding towns, Allingham’s husband joined up to do his bit and she eventually had to take over from the war work that he had been doing locally.

One thing that really struck me was her description of watching a formation of 75 Junkers bombers flying overhead and noticing that there were two tiny things like white lice threading there way across and up and down in the formation, like a sewing machine – then she realised that those white specks were the RAF doing their thing. Eventually the bombers gave up and turned back towards France again. Reading that it made me realise just how plucky the young men (hardly more than boys really) of the RAF had been.

Sometimes the more you know about authors the less you like them but Margery Allingham comes across as being a really likeable person (on a par with John Steinbeck for me). She really avoids party politics although she does say that the village is true blue, but if that is meant to mean Conservative then their behaviour is the opposite of the Conservative party of today as they have become progressively more nasty with every decade since the war. My Conservative voting father wouldn’t recognise that party today and certainly wouldn’t vote for them. To lots of people the word socialism is a dirty word, even evil, but Margery Allingham describes socialism as being like Christianity without the religion. That’s perfect as far as I’m concerned.

Towards the end of the book she writes about her personal thoughts on life, class and politics. Her attitudes are definitely those of middle England, too class ridden for my Scottish sensibilities as we are more inclined to take people as they actually are – not because of their status in society. This is what attracted Queen Victoria and Prince Albert to Scotland and the Scots. It’s a more healthy way of looking at society as it avoids that bizarre ‘respect the uniform/status’ nonsense which is a danger to society. As we say in Scotland, ‘we’re all Jock Tamson’s bairns‘ which means that when you get down to it – be we queen or pauper we’re all human beings. Although as the Scots were very popular with the Auburn villagers and Margery Allingham, particularly the Scottish regiment that camped out in the village for a while, I can’t help feeling just a wee bit – no not quite superior about it, but certainly happy!

Phew. That was a ramble and a half, anyway, if you’re at all interested in the social history and the run up to the start of World War 2 and on until 1941 when the book was first published you’ll find this book really interesting.

Christmas books

I was lucky and got a few books as Christmas gifts.

Portrait of a Murderer by Anne Meredith
A Horseman Riding By by R.F. Delderfield
English Garden Flowers by William Robinson (a lovely old gardening book)
The Oaken Heart by Margery Allingham
Murder in the Snow by Gladys Mitchell

I also got Pawn in Frankincese by Dorothy Dunnett – but that one didn’t make it into my photo.

Books for Christmas 2017

I intend to read The Oaken Heart soon, it’s the story of Margery Allingham’s village in wartime Britain.

At the moment I’m reading Long Summer Day, the first book in the Delderfield trilogy.
I’ve already finished reading Portrait of a Murderer but haven’t written about it yet.
The old gardening book will be one for dipping into from time to time I think.

This year I really want to concentrate on reading my own books, but no doubt that desperately alluring site – Fife libraries catalogue will lure me into temptation at some point!

Crimson Snow edited by Martin Edwards

Crimson Snow cover

Crimson Snow winter mysteries is a collection of vintage crime short stories edited by Martin Edwards. Reading this book gave me an opportunity to read a lot of vintage crime authors that I hadn’t read before.

The contributors are: Fergus Hume, Edgar Wallace, Margery Allingham, S.C. Roberts, Victor Gunn, Christopher Bush, Ianthe Jerrold, Macdonald Hastings, Julian Symons, Michael Gilbert and Josephine Bell.

Most of the stories are fairly short but the one by Victor Gunn is about seventy pages long so it’s really a novella and I don’t know if it’s because that one is longer – but I think it’s my favourite story. I’ll definitely be looking for more books by Victor Gunn anyway. I’ve seen a lot of his books on my travels but had no idea what they would be like and didn’t give them a go. No doubt now I won’t see any of his books in shops for yonks. That’s what happened to me with Dornford Yates, he was all over the place until Valerie said some of his books were good – and now they’ve disappeared after me being just about haunted by them previously.

I enjoyed this collection of short stories which are all set around winter/Christmas celebrations although the stories that I liked least were the ones by authors that I’ve read most. Margery Allingham and Macdonald Hastings disappointed me, maybe I just expected too much of them.

Published by British Library Crime Classics of course and the cover is taken from a vintage St Moritz travel poster. There’s a wee biography of each writer on the page before their story begins, which was interesting but I would have liked it if they had also added the date the story was originally published and which magazine it first appeared in. That’s me nit-picking though. This was perfect Christmas bedtime reading, why is murder and Christmas such a good combination?!

The 1968 Club

1968

At the moment I’m reading A Small Town in Germany by Len Deighton for the 1968 Club which has been organised by Simon at Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. This week came around far too quickly for me, I had intended to read a few books for it, but here are a few that I’ve read previously.

A Cargo of Eagles by Margery Allingham

Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith

The Public Image by Muriel Spark

Mount Vernon Love Story by Mary Higgins Clark

Garden Open Tomorrow by Beverley Nichols

The Salzburg Connection by Helen MacInnes

It’s an eclectic mix I think you’ll agree. I hope to have A Small Town in Germany finished soon.

20 Books of Summer 2017 update

I’m doing quite well with my 20 Books of Summer 2017 list this year although I had meant to do a bit of a half-way roundup before now. I have veered slightly from the list for various reasons, but I’m still hopeful of finding my copy of Sir Walter Scott’s Redgauntlet before September. I did a fatal tidy up before some visitors arrived and now that book is lost in the stacks which is very annoying as before that I knew exactly where it was – on the floor!

1. London Match by Len Deighton
2. I Claudius by Robert Graves
3. Highland River by Neil M. Gunn
4. The Demon in the House by Angela Thirkell
5. The Dove of Venus by Olivia Manning
6. City of the Mind by Penelope Lively
7. The Progress of a Crime by Julian Symons
8. Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Crofts
9. This Rough Magic by Mary Stewart
10. Flowers for the Judge by Margery Allingham
11. Claudius the God by Robert Graves
12. Pied Piper by Nevil Shute
13. Miss Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd
14. Katherine Wentworth by D.E. Stevenson
15. The Bertie Project by Alexander McCall Smith
16. A Memorial Service by J.I.M. Stewart
17. The Madonna of the Astrolabe by J.I.M. Stewart
18. Redgauntlet by Sir Walter Scott
19. High Rising by Angela Thirkell
20. Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell

Flowers for the Judge by Margery Allingham

Flowers for the Judge cover

Flowers for the Judge by Margery Allingham was first published in 1936 and I must say that I loved it. I think that Albert Campion’s character really improved in this one, in some of the earlier books he’s just too sketchy for my liking. It always seems to be Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke (1952) that people cite as Allingham’s best book but I wasn’t so impressed with that one.

Allingham dedicated this book to her publishers, presumably because the setting is a firm of publishers called Barnabas which has been going for generations and is now run by cousins. It’s a very conservative, old fashioned firm although years ago one of the directors had disappeared into thin air.

Twenty years on another director disappears although it’s some days before the alarm is raised by anyone. Paul is a bit of a strange person, married to Gina a much younger woman, an American, it’s a bit of a mystery why they married at all. The youngest partner is in love with Gina although she is completely oblivious of this fact. Campion gets involved in the mystery and with some twists and turns everything is satisfyingly sorted out.

Fogs were frequent menaces in cities in the UK at the time this book was written and Allingham describes one when she has a character saying:

‘As an American, Gina, you have a thrill coming to you. We are on the eve of a real old London particular, with flares in the streets, bus-conductors on foot leading their drivers over the pavements into plate glass windows, and blind beggars guiding city magnates across the roads for a small fee.

The title of the book comes from an old custom – judges carried a posy of flowers into the court to ward off gaol fever and nasty smells. You can read about it here. Obviously it was still being done in 1936 – at the Old Bailey anyway.

Death of a Ghost by Margery Allingham

Death of a Ghost cover

Death of a Ghost by Margery Allingham was first published in 1934 and it’s the sixth Albert Campion murder mystery, so fairly early in his career and for me that’s the problem with this book. As he matured Allingham wrote Campion as a much more interesting character than he was in his early days, he’s just too shadowy and one dimensional, I much prefer the older married Campion.

John Lafcadio was a great artist and he decided that to keep his name going as long as possible after his death he would paint several pictures to be unveiled after his death – one a year, beginning ten years after his death. I have to say that that is a great idea.

It’s the eighth unveiling of one of those paintings, so eighteen years after his death, and there are lots of famous people at the party, suddenly the lights go out – a shilling is needed for the electricity meter, and there’s a murder!

So begins Campion’s investigation, aided by Stanislaus Oates, but for me there’s just not enough of Campion and it’s all a bit predictable.

Murder Under the Christmas Tree – short stories

 Murder Under the Christmas Tree cover

Murder Under the Christmas Tree is a compilation of short stories by well known authors, all set around about Christmas – as you would expect.

The first story is The Necklace of Pearls by Dorothy L. Sayers. I’m quite a fan of Sayers but I have to admit that I was a wee bit disappointed with this one as I guessed the solution fairly quickly.

The other contributers are Ian Rankin, Margery Allingham, Arthur Conan Doyle, Val McDermid, Ellis Peters, Edmund Crispin, G.K. Chesterton, Carter Dickson and Ngaio Marsh. The sleuths include Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey, Cadfael, Father Brown, Rebus and others you will recognise.

It’s quite a collection of authors and I’m sure there’s something for everyone here, well everyone who enjoys a good murder around the festive season – as I do!

I read this book for the Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge.

Traitor’s Purse by Margery Allingham

Traitor’s Purse by Margery Allingham which is called in the US – The Sabotage Murder Mystery – was first published in 1941. After reading an article in the Guardian recently about the book I decided I had to read it soon, so I resorted to the internet to get it fast, rather than doing my usual patient mooching in secondhand bookshops and trusting to serendipity that it would turn up soon.

Prior to reading the Guardian article I had always read that Allingham’s best book was The Tiger in the Smoke, so I was very surprised when Traitor’s Purse was mentioned as being so good, but I must say that I agree completely, especially as the book cleared up a puzzle for me.

I had always been perplexed by the character of Allingham’s sleuth, Albert Campion. I haven’t been reading her books in order and it seemed obvious to me that the older Campion had matured into a much more interesting human being. To put it bluntly the young Campion always seemed to me to be more than a bit of a wet willie. In Traitor’s Purse Campion has more or less the same opinion of himself as I had.

Campion wakes up in a hospital bed, unable to remember anything, not even his own name. He overhears a conversation which implies that he is a murderer and will be hanged, so he wastes no time and escapes from the hospital. Outside he bumps into Amanda and some other people who have no idea that he has lost his memory, but they seem to expect Campion to be in charge. There’s an important thing which they expect him to do, but Campion is clueless as to what it is.

When he catches sight of himself in a mirror he’s surprised by how old he looks as he seems at least ten years older than he thought he was. (Which of us hasn’t had that experience!) But worst of all is that he has assumed that Amanada is his wife, so it’s a horrible shock when he discovers that he is only engaged to her and he has been engaged to her for 8 years.

What sort of man is he he wonders? Who would leave Amanda dangling like that all that time? He doesn’t like the personality which seems to be his. It’s all very well being a gentleman but it doesn’t have to be combined with stupidity.

I thoroughly enjoyed this one and I’m presuming that Allingham realised that she needed to make Campion a much stronger character than she had made him before. He needed a knock on the head to give him a different outlook on life, and that’s exactly what she gave him. Written at the beginning of the war and at a time when things weren’t exactly going well for the allies this is more of a spy thriller than a murder mystery and fittingly John Le Carre was an admirer of her writing.

You can read the Guardian article about Allingham and Traitor’s Purse here.