As the first novel to feature the character of Mr. Albert Campion in a central role, 1930’s Mystery Mile went in for a memorable start. An affable, if somewhat foolish-seeming individual, Campion is first described as “a pale young man who seemed to be trying to hide behind his enormous spectacles.” As a passenger aboard the ocean-going yacht Elephantine, he has appeared after dinner to enjoy the in-journey entertainment, only to narrowly foil a murder plot revolving around a conjuror. Another passenger, the American Judge Crowdy Lobbett, narrowly escapes the fifth attempt on his life, and his son Marlowe accosts the young man responsible for the escape, only to be presented with the details on his card:
Mr. Albert Campion
Nothing sordid, vulgar or plebian
Coups neatly executed
Deserving cases preferred
Police no object
So begins a tale that is part adventure story, part mystery, and part caper, told in the light, adventure story style of several of Allingham’s early books. Judge Lobbett has discovered a lead which could reveal to him the identity of the leader of the vicious and dangerous Simister gang of criminals. He has fled America with his son Marlowe and his daughter Isopel in hopes of tracing the clues to their source, with or without the help of the English police. Campion, along with his henchman, the burglar-turned-manservant Lugg, arranges for the Lobbetts to shelter in Suffolk with Giles and Biddy Paget, the local squires of the village of Mystery Mile.
Characterisation is generally an Allingham strong suit. Even minor characters sometimes reappear from book to book, showing Campion as existing in a fully-realised world. In this first novel there is already a firm foundation, with the establishment of the character of Lugg, the Pagets and the Lobbetts, as well as the characters of the art dealer Barber, the conjuror Datchet, the local rector Swithin Cush, and the corrupt telephonist Thos. Knapp… to name a few.
The mist-shrouded locale of Mystery Mile itself could be said to be a character, the sort of place that Allingham delighted in creating, and drawing, as she did to some extent with her characters, on things that she already knew. In the conclusion to the story, the landscape itself plays a part, and it is wonderfully evoked. This is also true in the late 1980s BBC television production, starring Peter Davison as Campion, a production which is largely faithful to this book (although making some cuts to the story along the way), and worth watching if you happen to find it on DVD or a streaming service.
Depending on how you count her published works, this is Allingham’s fourth or fifth novel, and she not only turned an excellent phrase but made it seem effortless. Although I’ve read criticism in the past which suggests that these are immature novels, I find them to be rather entertaining, and even better-paced, in some instances, than her later works. If you’re considering reading the Campion stories, it might be best to do them in order, starting with The Crime at Black Dudley, but you will very likely enjoy Mystery Mile. It’s an excellent read, with plenty of promise of what is to come for Campion. Five stars.
Reviewed 2 November 2015.
Find your copy of Mystery Mile from booksellers worldwide at AbeBooks.com (title links directly to search results).