World War II is limping to a close and private detective Albert Campion has just returned from years abroad on a secret mission. Relaxing in his bath before rushing back to the country, and to the arms of his wife, Amanda, Campion is disturbed when his servant, Lugg, and a lady of unmistakably aristocratic bearing appear in his flat carrying the corpse of a woman.
The reluctant Campion is forced to put his powers of detection to work as he is drawn deeper into the case, and into the eccentric Caradocs household, dealing with murder, treason, grand larceny, and the mysterious disappearance of some very valuable art.
“Margery Allingham deserves to be rediscovered.” —P.D. James
“Margery Allingham was one of the greatest mid-20th-century practitioners of the detective novel.” —Alexander McCall Smith
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
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The man and the woman carried the body cautiously up the stairs. Although it was still early evening, the narrow way was grey and shadowy, and it was very cold, colder even than it had been outside amid the thin traffic of a wartime London.
The two who were alive in that grim little group which writhed and breathed so hard in the gloom, were both elderly people. They were an unexpected couple in any situation; the man was a large, blank-faced Cockney without any pretensions and the woman was out of place beside him, her delicate aristocratic grace accentuating both his clumsiness and the horror of her present task.
All they had in common was the job in hand and a sense of nightmare, and as they plodded upward with the dead weight between them their feet trod the carpeted stairs without feeling them and they strained their muscles without noticing the strain.
Mr. Lugg, who was in his disreputable Civil Defence uniform, reflected that he had to hand it to the old girl even if she was a marchioness, she was showing very game.
"One more flight," he muttered.
"Hush," said Lady Carados, adding breathlessly, "oh, can't we keep her feet off the ground?"
Meanwhile in the apartment above, Mr. Albert Campion, who was in that particular state of ignorance wherein it is downright idiocy to be wise, was taking a warm bath.
He lay in the soothing water utterly at ease for the first time since his long journey home had begun some eight weeks before. For the first time he was entirely happy, and his only worry in the world concerned the possibility of his dropping off to sleep and so missing his train. For a long time he kept perfectly still, his lean body relaxed and content. He had changed a little in the last three years; the sun had bleached his fair hair to whiteness lending him a physical distinction he had never before possessed. There were new lines in his over-thin face and with their appearance some of his old misleading vacancy of expression had vanished. But nothing had altered the upward drift of his thin mouth nor the engaging astonishment which so often and so falsely appeared in his pale eyes.
Just now he was barely thinking. His mind was ticking over very slowly — pop pop, pop pop, pop pop. He had just worked out with enormous mental effort that he had fifteen and a half minutes to lie thus, twenty minutes to dress, twenty minutes to potter about remembering the things he might have forgotten, and twenty minutes to catch his train. From his present viewpoint this simple programme possessed beauty, luxury, civilization.
He had been back in London exactly one hour and ten minutes, and as yet had had no time to form any real impression of the changes in the great city. But already it had spread its ancient charm about him and he knew from the very smell of it that it was still safe, still firmly respectable, still obdurately matter of fact. He was immeasurably relieved; from the tales he had heard abroad he had expected worse.
For three years he had been at large on two warring Continents employed on a mission for the Government so secret that he had never found out quite what it was, or at least that was the version of his activities which it seemed most prudent to give at the moment. Meanwhile he was certainly damnably tired.
At this point he thought he heard a curious shuffling noise on the other side of the bathroom wall, but he quietened his over-alert senses by reflecting that he was home again in London where shuffling noises had prosaic explanations. Lying in the water he stirred slightly, moving his hands like fins, and remembering how as a child he had enjoyed playing 'sleeping fish' in the bath. Life was very good and very quiet. Six weeks' leave was due, and he was prepared to enjoy it in a leafy peace which yet promised a gentle excitement of its own. However, just now, just at this very moment there was at last time to waste.
He heard the latch of the front door and the subsequent scuffling without undue surprise. He took it that Lugg had got the wire he had sent from the port. Well, that was nice, it would be good to see the old villain who had served him so faithfully if so truculently for so long. He had clearly done his best by the flat, too. The blitzed windows in the bedroom were neatly pasted up with cardboard, and the whole place was cleaner than one might have expected.
Campion was just about to shout a greeting when he became aware of a new, and more unlikely series of noises; swift footsteps raced up the main staircase, the front door shuddered open just as someone on the inside was closing it, there was a muttered expletive, and finally an entirely unfamiliar feminine scream.
Mr. Campion sat up slowly.
Another unfamiliar female voice, but older this time and very close at hand, said pleadingly: "Be quiet, dear, oh, be quiet."
Then more scuffling, followed by whispering, and afterwards a second door opening and closing.
Mr. Campion's impulse was to lie down again and to pull the soapsud blanket over his head, but he dismissed the idea as unworthy and clambered out gingerly. Draped in a towel he stood listening. Evidently the Reception Committee, or whatever it was, had moved into the sitting-room across the passage; he could only just distinguish the murmur of voices.
He began to dry himself reluctantly. He was disappointed, of course, not, as he reflected between rubs, was he averse to some small token of welcome on his return, on the contrary he had been looking forward to a reunion with his old friend and knave, but why the man should have thrown a party, and of what it could possibly consist, he could not imagine.
He had no dressing-gown in the bathroom, and so, uncomfortably girt about with towels, he tiptoed into the hall, intending to fetch one from the bedroom. The sitting-room door was closed, but he could hear the steady whisper of voices within. He opened the bedroom door very quietly and made straight for the hanging cupboard. Since most of the window space was boarded up, the room was in semi-darkness, and he found what he sought before he noticed anything unusual. It was when he turned again and was tying the girdle tightly about his lean ribs that he first saw the shape on the bed.
His first impression was that it was a roll of carpet which lay there so stiffly, and he was annoyed with himself for being so startled by it; but as he came forward to lean over the foot of the bed he saw the thing for what it was, and a wave of mingled incredulity and apprehension passed over him, leaving him suddenly cold.
It was a woman, and she was dead. There was no possible question about it. In life she had been a birdy little creature, bright-eyed no doubt, and even pretty in a faded, possibly over-excitable fashion, but now her eyes were hidden, her mouth was set in a dreadful narrow O, and the high, thin bone of her nose rose like a knife-blade about to cut through the livid skin.
She was clad in a black silk nightdress under a long grey squirrel coat, while on her bare feet hung little wedge shoes of grey-and-black leather, very square and serviceable. One of her legs was twisted unnaturally, the knee turned outwards and raised an inch or so from the coverlet on which she lay. She was dead, rigor was well advanced, and her hands folded on her breast looked formal and absurd.
Campion stood staring at her blankly; she was a complete stranger to him. Moreover, ten minutes before when he had turned on his bath she had not been there. Whoever had brought her was presumably in the next room now, whispering. The first definite thought which reached him amid the firework display of question marks in his mind was that whatever had happened, whoever this pathetic little bundle might turn out to have been, he must not permit her to prevent him catching his train. That train was important. The reward it promised him had been most hardly earned.
All the same the present situation could hardly be ignored. Twitching his bright dressing-gown more tightly round him he stepped lightly down the passage, and opened the sitting-room door. He did not enter it, but stood back taking the elementary precaution by force of habit.
"Oh, my God!"
The cry which greeted the silent swinging door was purely superstitious. He recognized the panic note instantly, and walked in, to find himself confronted by three frightened people: Lugg, in Heavy Rescue uniform, and two of the most striking women he had ever seen in his life.
It was the girl who had cried out, he could tell that by the grey pallor of her skin and the fear in her wide-open eyes. All the same, she was lovely, very fair with unusually vivid blue eyes, and long slender bones. It was her youth which impressed him most at that first glance; she was downy with it, twenty at the very outside, he judged, and at the moment she was shocked and too horrified even to cry.
He glanced past her at the older woman and was surprised by a sudden conviction that he ought to be able to recognize her. It was clear that she expected to be recognized. She was frightened now, set with resolution and hardened out of any normal, but there was no mistaking her for what she was, an Edwardian beauty still young in everything but years. She was still alive, still adventurous, still emotional, and she wore her age ruefully, as if it were an unbecoming garment of which she was determined to make the best. She was a personality too. Struggling to place her, Campion found to his disgust that he was thinking of the portrait of Mrs. Siddons by Sir Joshua Reynolds.
She made no attempt to speak, but stood looking at him woodenly, nothing in her eyes.
Campion turned to the only member of the group whom he had met before and made a discovery which alarmed him more than any of the others. Mr. Lugg was frightened also; he was shaking, and downright uncompromising disbelief was written plainly across his great white egg of a face. Campion met his eyes, and the three years' separation between them vanished, so that in spite of himself a flicker of his old smile passed over Campion's face.
"Is the lady in my bedroom staying long?" he enquired.
Lugg opened his mouth and closed it again without speaking; he glanced round with a helplessness which was not typical of him and finally confronted his old employer with an expression which was no longer truculent.
"I didn't know you was back," he said devastatingly.
"Oh well then, that's all right." Campion appeared relieved. "I'm just going anyway. I only dropped in for a bath between trains. You just go on as though I weren't here."
"No, wait a minute, guv'nor." Lugg put up a fat hand appealingly. "I'd like to have a bit of a word with you. It's lucky you come along, reely. 'Ere, come into the kitchen a minute, will you?"
They might have retired, but at this point the woman who reminded Mr. Campion of Mrs. Siddons collected herself and intervened.
"Oh, this is Mr. Campion, is it?" she said graciously. "I'm afraid we're imposing on you terribly. I don't think we've met, have we? But I've heard my son John speak of you many times — Carados, you know."
It was a very fair effort. The great drawing-rooms of the early part of the century had been a severe training ground and some of their stoic gallantry reappeared for a moment, in her quiet voice and unshakable ease of manner. Mr. Campion was astounded. If John, Marquess of Carados, was her son, then she must be Edna, Dowager Marchioness, one time the lovely Edna Dawlish, daughter of old Henry G. Dawlish, cotton king in the golden age before the wars. No wonder he had fancied he recognized her, he ought to have done. Her photographs had taken the place of Mrs. Langtry's when the Jersey Lily had first begun to fade. They had appeared in every magazine and shop window in the country. As a young bride she had swept London society off its feet, and her wealth, her vivacity, and the romantic tales about her had become fabulous in a year.
As soon as he had digested this piece of information the utter unbelievableness of the present situation struck him afresh, and he pulled himself together with difficulty.
"Why, of course," he said stupidly. "Please use the place as much as you like. Tell me, is Johnny about?"
At this moment the nods and grimaces in which Lugg had been indulging for some time gave place to audible noise, and Lady Carados turned to look at him. The fat man was more pallid than ever and his small eyes were imploring.
"I would like to 'ave a bit of a word with 'im," he said. "I brung you 'ere, you see."
She sat down. "Do," she said. "Do. You explain everything, Mr. Lugg, will you? I don't want to hear it again. I'm afraid we need help."
Lugg made no comment on this last observation until he and Campion were in the dressing-room beyond the bathroom where the traveller had left his clothes. Then he expressed himself forcibly.
"The fact is, cock," he added more calmly, when he had relieved his feelings, "we're up the old-fashioned creek. You've come just in time, that's about the size of it."
Mr. Campion emerged from the shirt he was pulling on, his hair dishevelled, but his expression firm.
"Don't you kid yourself, my lad," he said mildly. "I'm catching a 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 seem to have toughened up considerably. What the hell are you doing, Lugg, who is that woman?"
"We don't know," said Mr. Lugg surprisingly, "that's 'arf the trouble."
Campion glanced up from the shoe he was tying, his face unusually serious.
"Suppose you come across," he suggested.
Lugg still hesitated.
"Well," he said at last in a burst of confiding, "it's like this. I've been sitting in the square for about a year now. ..."
"Yus. I'm on duty there, see? We've 'ad our ups and downs, but for a lot of the time I 'aven't 'ad a lot to do, and me and my old girl 'ave been bored some of the time."
"Your old girl?"
"That's my pig — we keep pigs, us 'Eavy Rescue chaps."
"In Carados Square?"
"Yus. 'Elping the war effort."
"I see." Mr. Campion concentrated on his other shoe.
"You're out of touch," Lugg explained magnanimously, "but you'll pick it up."
"Yes, I hope so. Carry on."
"I am carrying on. You keep your mind on what I'm telling you, 'cos it's difficult, some of it. Now, this 'ere Lady Carados, wot's in the next room, she lives in the square, on the side wot's still standing."
"The other three sides are not so hot, I suppose?" Campion could not forgo the question, for he had a sudden picture of the graceful houses with their slender windows and arched porticos, which used to stand like guardsmen round the delicate green of one of the city's finest gardens.
"Most of the other three sides is cooler now than wot they was," said Lugg succinctly. "But a part of the 'ouse where 'is nibs, 'er Ladyship's son, used to live, that's all right, and that's wot we're coming to."
Johnny Carados's house and only part of it all right. In his mind's eye Campion saw again the Carados mansion, which George Quellett had redecorated in his Bakst period. It seemed impossible that it should not still exist. It was the Music Room he remembered best; it had been at the top of the building, so probably it had gone, and its Indian red hangings, its gilt and its green, all reduced to a mass of blackened spars.
All the same, it had been worth doing, even for so short a life. It had been from that room that Johnny had conducted his remarkable activities. Of course, as a man with such a background and with such a fortune, Carados had had every opportunity to give his genius full rein, but he had never wasted those opportunities; he had been a great patron. It was Johnny who had financed the Czesca Ballet, Johnny who established the Museum of Wine, Johnny who had put the Pastel Society on its feet, who had given Zolly his first half-dozen concerts in London, and who had rebuilt the Sicilian Hall.
Excerpted from "Coroner's Pidgin"
Copyright © 1945 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.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Excellent detective novel set in 1945 wartime London. Some of the characters are rather flightl and overwrought, which gets a bit tiresome but I think that's how some people really were. Issues of class and expectations complicate the case while all Campion wants is to be left alone to catch his train out of London to enjoy his first home leave in a long while.
Margery Allingham is an exceptional Writer. Her plots are sophisticated, as are her characters. The last one I read- I thought this is my favorite and then I felt the same with the next one. She has the ability to describe characters in a pre-war or post-war setting- in an England none of us knew. Charming, intelligent, people who get themselves in a bad situation and among the group- one is a killer. Albert Campion has come home from doing intelligence work for the Government and is headed home to his wife and son. He stops off at his London flat for a luxurious soak in the tub- representing beauty, luxury and civilization to him. A body has been brought up the stairs and laid in his bedroom. A Woman, he has never seen, reposes there and has been brought by Lugg, his butler, and the Dowager Marchioness of Carados. The situation is ludicrous and he bows out determined to go home. The Taxi Driver has other plans. He wakes up chloroformed with a Policeman standing over him. His clothes, have been strewn over an empty building and himself drugged. Despite his best intentions of catching the train home he has to solve the mystery. The characters are stunning in this book... consisting of a group of people collected together by Johnny Carados, Marquess and RAF Pilot. Two of these are Peter Onyer and his wife, Gwenda. Peter, managed his financial affairs and Gwenda, acted as her husband's secretary. Ricky Silva, petulant and artistic, did the flowers. Captain Gold ruled the household servants, and a plump, cheerful Dolly, went about putting everything right. Then there is Eve Snow, Johnny's girlfriend and Susan, who Johnny is to marry despite that fact. Don Evers is in love with Susan. Allingham is amazing at the way she collects the characters and sews them into a complicated plot but does it in a way in which you stay fascinated. One of the writers from the golden era of mysteries she is equal with Agatha Christie, and Dorothy L. Sayers. I finished this book in one night and it stayed with me for several days. If you like charming and evocative- along with sophisticated people from another Era, then this is for you. I loved it.
In the waning days of World War II Albert Campion has returned from Europe on leave. His intent is a quick stopover in his old London flat and then to take a train into the country to be with his wife Amanda and a child he only knows from letters. Unfortunately, he surprises Lugg and Lady Carados, the mother of his close friend Johnny, carrying a corpse into his rooms. And it goes on from there. Campion is thrown willy-nilly into a murder investigation.