Strange things are happening in Saltey. The little village on the Essex coast is invaded by bikers and a parade of peculiar visitors, a newly released prisoner is rumored to be in the area, Mr. Lugg has bought a bungalow there, the Saltey Demon is on the loose again . . . and Albert Campion is looking for the disappearance of thousands of pounds of gold coinage.
This is Margery Allingham’s final novel featuring her famous gentleman sleuth, overflowing with evil arch-villains and classic thuggery against the atmospheric backdrop of postwar England.
“Allingham has that rare gift in a novelist, the creation of characters so rich and so real that they stay with the reader forever.” —Sara Paretsky
“Margery Allingham stands out like a shining light.” —Agatha Christie
About the Author
Date of Birth:May 20, 1904
Date of Death:June 30, 1966
Place of Birth:London
Place of Death:Colchester, Essex, England
Education:Endsleigh House School, Colchester; the Perse School, Cambridge; and the Regent Street Polytechnic, London
Read an Excerpt
Back Door to London
The rain was falling in a sweet relentless fashion as it does in spring in London and it was all very peaceful and pleasant if uncompromisingly wet. The voice in the car echoed the unhurried pace of the afternoon.
'I found this absurd place Saltey, you're so interested in, perfectly enchanting in an off-beat sort of way but I'm damned if I can tell you quite why.'
It was a young man talking to a middle-aged one. He was not being completely disingenuous, for subsequent generations seldom are with each other, but at least he was playing scrupulously fair.
'I realise that the whole township — or as you'd say, village — pretends to be deeply and secretly wicked, which is naïve and kind of endearing. I wish I had more to report on it,' he went on, 'but unfortunately its modern life appears to be almost entirely vegetable. If you were interested in its history I could do better. I'm very sure a full scale archaeological dig there would pay off, for one thing. But the living inhabitants are not exactly go ahead except for the couple at the pub who are working like hell — or at least the woman is — to get a little tourist trade.'
'Is she having any luck?'
The lighter voice of Mr Albert Campion betrayed interest. He had curled his long body in the passenger seat of the Lotus Elan and seemed anxious to talk.
The driver shook his head. 'A little — at weekends. The natives themselves don't respond to anything which looks new or difficult, however profitable. Their great interest is the contents of each other's wills. They sit around speculating for hours and there's a grand frustration scene every time one gets published.'
'An end will come to that, in due course,' said Mr Campion. 'Mark my words.'
'You're telling me!' The driver laughed and slid down behind the wheel in an attempt to get a better view through the railings of the public gardens beside which they were parked. 'Are we sitting here in the middle of London waiting for someone? Or do you just feel that this is the quietest place to talk?'
'It has its advantages.' Campion surveyed the deserted scene with satisfaction. Lunch time was over and the streams of office workers had been sucked back into the tall buildings for another few hours before the next mass exodus. Although the Lotus was in one of the busiest parts of the town, between the University and the Oxford Street shopping centre, there was for the moment hardly a pedestrian in sight and the other cars parked regimentally at their meters were empty.
Mortimer Kelsey, Morty to his friends and the other members of his faculty at Vere University, Constance, New Jersey, appeared a happy man. A great deal about Britain struck him as funny after nearly a year's residence, but he was also deeply attracted by its ancient spell. Both the elegant car body and his casual clothes, conscious efforts in understatement without dullness, were custom built. His haircut was long for one country and short for the other and managed to make him look mildly distinguished. This was fair, for he was already a marked man among the newest crop of historians and he was one of that army of Western scholars who have discovered so much more about the cities of the old world than their inhabitants dream there is to know. He was in his mid-twenties, a good looking youngster with well shaped, compact bones, a deeply scored face which already showed signs of the notable scholar he would appear in later years.
He was lucky not to appear offensively intellectual — which is to say not at all — and he was not conceited although the pundits expected interesting results from the piece of original research on which he was now engaged. His father was American, his mother English: both families unfashionably well endowed. Mr Campion had met him through his own son Rupert who was now working for an honours degree at Harvard.
The two men although very different in age had a good deal in common. Albert Campion, too, was tall and fair but he was overthin 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, whereas Morty's thick light brown hair had a wave in it and there was nothing bleak or colourless about his grey eyes.
In his own apologetic way Mr Campion was a celebrated figure. In his time he had performed a number of services for a great many causes. He was a negotiator and an unraveller of knots and there were still people who suspected, because of his war time activities, that he had a cloak and a dagger somewhere concealed. Those who disliked him complained that he seemed negligible until it was just too late.
At the moment he was looking out at the patch of rain-soaked London green which formed the centre of Killowen Square. The downpour which had persisted all morning was getting lighter but the air was soft as if there might be more rain to come.
'If I should want you to go back to Saltey for a while, could you manage it?' he asked suddenly.
'I was hoping you'd say that. When will you know?' Morty's eagerness seemed a little surprising, even to himself, for he coloured faintly. 'It's got something,' he said defensively.
The older man continued to look out at the garden. The prospect was not imposing. Four wet asphalt paths met in the centre of a roundel of grass and the dripping plane trees in their scant shrouds of new green looked sparse and sodden. The only ornamental feature of the place was a tiny Victorian bandstand perched among regimented tulips. Constructed of florid cast iron work, it was white painted, gay as a sunshade and just as silly on a rainy day. Mr Campion glanced over the empty garden to the immense wall of the buildings beyond.
'That over-stuffed contraption squatting under the new skyscraper is Lugg's favourite hotel,' he remarked. 'You saw him down there, of course? He considers the old Ottoman is "quite the article", which is his highest praise. In my father's day the valets there always ironed the laces when they cleaned the boots and a rope ladder was kept under every bed in case of fire. How is Lugg?'
'Very impressive. He shoots the most magnificent line ever. I've heard him on the well pressed bootlace. Was he ever in Royal service?'
Mr Campion controlled his amusement. 'He's looked after me for quite a few years as a sort of housekeeper,' he began cautiously.
'I know, but he says this was when he was younger. He was telling one of the architects he did a spell for the Monarch before he lost his figure.'
The thin man relaxed. 'That was only for six months,' he said. 'It was the — er — Palace of Wormwood Scrubs, I believe. Which architects are these?'
'The people who are gunning for the job of building his bungalow.' Morty spoke with authority. 'He's retiring to Saltey to take up archaeology, or so he says. Didn't he tell you? He could choose a worse place.'
'Oh, what is there?'
I'm not sure, yet.' The distinctive young face had become earnest. 'As you know, the paper I'm doing is on London's approaches in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and when you asked me to investigate that crazy damn story there, I was genuinely looking for something else.'
'Saltey: gateway to the East End?'
'You're not so far out, and it's my own beautiful discovery.' Morty's grin was joyful 'There's not a breath of it in any of the authorities but I think I've got proof that the little harbour there, which is practically silted up now, is all that is left of the ancient bolt hole, old London's eastern emergency exit. As a matter of fact, Saltey is the other end of Mob's Hole. I'm sure of it now. The lower half of the village where the best pub stands is called Mob's Bowl today and that's hardly a distortion, is it? There it is, written on the survey maps and the signposts.' He paused in sudden doubt. 'You have heard of Mob's Hole?'
'Perhaps not. I'm quite besotted with my subject. Anyway, you can take it from me that it existed in Wanstead about seventeen ten or so. It was a rakehelly dive, a kind of roadhouse where the "mobility" — that's the joke name of the period for the tarts and townees who had transport — used to ride out of the city for a feed, what we'd call a barbecue, and a punch-up. There is a fine fruity account of it in The London Spy.'
'Do the present day people of Saltey subscribe to this?' 'Gosh, no. They've never heard of it. They think, if they think at all, that the Bowl is derived from the silted up tidal basin by the quay and that it could be a relic of a prehistoric salt panning industry. One old biddy told me it was "Mab" and not "Mob" and was a direct reference to the Fairy Queen.'
'How old is Saltey?'
'Oh, dateless. In prehistoric times it was at the edge of the single great river mouth. Then it became a delta as the mud banks shifted and finally it grew into the marsh and plough we know. Since its heyday, which was probably pre-Saxon, it must have grown more and more inefficient as the clay took over. I'm certain there's an early fortress by the highest part of the sea wall just waiting to be uncovered.' He sighed and laughed at himself for it. 'That's not my period and so is not my province, which is the infuriating thing about history. It does keep repeating itself but only in its untidy way. New names get attached to old happenings and vice versa. If I don't stick to my own period I'll be lost in a morass of extra information. But it's a honey of a find. Do you know what the upper or respectable end of the place is called? Forty Angels.'
'Really?' Mr Campion so far forgot himself as to take his eyes off the garden he had been watching so steadfastly. 'Come to think of it, I did know that one. It's later than the other end and the name was given it as a safeguard against slander. Call a gathering The Forty Thieves and it could mean trouble, but say Forty Angels and no one wants to black your eye. Yes, your meaning is clear. Isn't that right?'
Morty wagged his head.
'It looks pretty damned odd on the Ordnance Survey,' he said. 'It's a crazy name for a village district, even in England. Saltey was on the end of an escape route. It was the funnel through which secret goods or people were smuggled in or out of East London. It's remote even now. Not in miles of course — it's just cut off. The approach is terrible.'
'Through that maze of lanes lying beyond the Southend road, I suppose?'
'Oh yes, it's still a Cinderella. Today there's a bungalow dormitory two miles wide but before that one has to pass a waste of worked out clay pits which have been turned into a wilderness by various army training courses and old defence works. Long before they were as much as thought of, that was where the Great Dump was.'
In the back of Mr Campion's mind a faint bell rang. 'Was that "The Trough"?'
'That's right!' Morty was delighted. 'It was a swamp really. The little Rattey River rose in it and drained out to reach the sea at Saltey. It first appears as a place of ill omen in the Middle Ages, when for a time it was thought to be the source of the Plague. For generations it was a no-man's land, an Alsatia worse than any shanty town. Bands of diseased beggars wandered around. Indestructible rubbish was shot there. Rats and wild dogs bred there and I believe there were ferocious wild pig as late as eighteen hundred. No one in his senses took a path through the place and there are some hair-raising tales of kidnappings, murdered coachmen, wandering lunatics and even cannibalism. On the far side of it, nearer the coast, there was woodland, an arm of the old forest which covered the whole country at one time. Then there is a strip of twitchy heath, some of which isn't enclosed even now, and after that the mouth of the tiny Rattey River estuary and Saltey. You can drive through it all now, but it's still not easy to find. No industry you see. Not suitable land for development. Just the saltings and Saltey. When you do reach it, there it sits, smug and deserted and not very pleased to see you.'
'You say there are no new residents?'
'None that I've heard of.' He turned and glanced across the garden. 'Its only claim to fame is that a peculiarly revolting mother-figure was found in a field at Firestone, four miles away, in nineteen hundred. That's in the British Museum now — in the horror comic room. Hey!'
He leaned forward. A solitary figure had appeared on the path approaching the bandstand. He was some distance away and was making for the distant gate in front of the skyscraper and the baroque hotel.
'See who that is?' he demanded in some excitement as he took a small gunmetal cylinder from the open map compartment in front of him. 'I think I'm right, though I've only seen him once before. He's almost commonplace close to, but utterly distinctive from a distance. It's the thing I particularly noticed about him. Hang on, I'll give you the bird-watching glass in a moment.' He put the little telescope to his eye and crowed.
'I'm right! That's L. C. Corkran, head of Intelligence and Security or whatever you call it over here. My, my! He looks pretty sour, doesn't he?'
Mr Campion, who had stiffened involuntarily at the mention of the name, recovered himself and accepted the little instrument.
'He's retiring, I believe,' said Morty, his ingenuousness unquestionable, 'at the end of the year.'
His passenger grunted. 'About time too, if he's as well known as that.'
'Oh, it's not general knowledge. One of our attachés pointed him out to me at a Test Match when I first came over. I remembered him because I was told he was quite somebody years ago.' He spoke regretfully. 'Burn-before-reading top secrets are dead ducks nowadays. It must be tough on these old boys to have their hush-hush departments degenerating into tatting houses all round them. They're all full of old ladies sticking little silver knives into each other's backs now. Or so they say.' He shook his head and changed the subject.' You know, I can easily imagine this town teeming with sedan chairs and stinking bullies in silk coats, but I'm darned if I can see it as the gaping ruin it must have been only twenty odd years ago. It doesn't seem possible. It's so elderly and permanent and — I won't say pompous — urbane, perhaps.'
Mr Campion let him chatter. Through the 'escape and evasion' glass, an instrument with which he had once been uncomfortably familiar but had now become a mere 'war surplus store', he was watching the grim features of one of his oldest and closest friends. He and L. C. Corkran, 'Elsie' to his familiars, met seldom nowadays but there had been a time when each had been content to know that his life was in the other's hands. Morty was right. The old man looked bitter. Mr Campion knew that expression and he kept the glass on him as he came up with the bandstand. He shot a glance at it from force of habit, because of its memories and strode on, his heavy chin thrust out, his shoulders sagging and his eyes down. There was defeat written all over him. As he turned and his face was hidden, Mr Campion raised the glass to the new skyscraper beside the old hotel. Of the nest of windows on the ninth and tenth floors, two had curtains looped back by cautious hands. They dropped into place as the solitary figure advanced.
Old ladies with silver knives? More accurately dry grey serpents with shiny duct-fed teeth. The thin man shivered and returned the little telescope to its locker.
'How soon can you get back to Saltey?' he enquired.
'You've made up your mind already? Wonderful. I thought you'd have to have a conference or something. I can go down there today, as a matter of fact. Am I still to be investigating the great Saltey Demon? I'm afraid that's going to turn out to be a dead loss, by the way.'
'I thought it might. What is it? A rustic joke?'
'Sort of. The lady at the pub has been casting round for something to attract visitors ever since she took over the place. She had a yen for one of those God-awful wishing-wells you find all over the West Country. You know the sort of thing. Fling your dime into the water and the local pixies will reward you with a lucky pebble and a picture postcard of the waterfront. She kept worrying to know if Saltey had such a sprite and eventually someone — her husband perhaps, for he's a local — came forward with this unlikely devil. They tell the tale on Friday nights in walnut time when the moon is full. Or something like that.'
Mr Campion laughed.
'She must have sold the idea to the local papers because the nationals picked it up a year or two back. I read it somewhere. A coloured Sunday, I think.'
'You told me. Anyway, the legend provides me with a fairly reasonable excuse for hanging round. At the moment I'm the poor young Yankee professor, good for a free pint and folksy tale any day.'
'And no one new has arrived in the village in the past year or so?'
'Only the pub people, or rather the woman. A couple called Wishart. Her name is Dixie and she's not exactly an intellectual but she means well and she's a worker. Her husband is not. He's a man of culture in his odd way — quite a different background, anyhow, I'd say. I think he lived around those parts as a boy. He writes poetry and gets it published or used to.'
Excerpted from "Cargo of Eagles"
Copyright © 1968 Margery Allingham.
Excerpted by permission of Ipso Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 Back Door to London,
2 The Old Pal's Act,
3 The Swallow Café,
4 The Road to Saltey,
5 The Company at the The Demon,
6 The Poet of the Saltings,
7 The Mark of Teague,
8 The String Man,
9 Social Evening,
10 Doctor and Patient,
11 At Cheffin's Farm,
12 Beware of Ghosts,
13 The Moving Finger,
15 The Night of the Demon,
16 Twenty Years After,
17 The Picture on the Wall,
18 The Tethered Goat,
19 Death of a Legend,
20 Cargo of Eagles,