Book Review-Black Plumes by Margery Allingham


258489431_0ad9810e29_zI began this book eagerly anticipating the arrival of the beloved sleuth, Mr. Campion. However, Miss Allingham weaves her tale so skillfully that by the time I realized he was not going to show up, I didn’t miss him.

The novel takes a somewhat unusual point of view – in a typical mystery plot, our heroine would actually be a minor character with a secret that befuddles the plot. She is not directly involved in the crime, nor does she do any detecting. She is a sympathetic ingenue who travels the story as an emotional roller coaster, with the nervous strain of the mystery alternately bringing her together with, and driving her apart from, her love interest.

The unique perspective carries us along a nice twisty plot very handily, and Ms. Allingham focuses on the emotional impact of fear, guilt, suspicion and suspense without getting bogged down in procedural details. There are plenty of red herrings, and she strung me along to the last moment guessing at the whodunit. When it comes to plot, characterization and dialogue, you know you are in the hands of a technical master.

With all the good stuff said, I must mention the deplorably racist language and attitudes which are, unfortunately, central to the plot. This is an issue that taints so many vintage books. It is hard to imagine in today’s world how much this thinking pervaded the culture at the time.

At times, Allingham points out racism as a type of blinding stupidity that makes certain characters vulnerable to cynical manipulation. At other points, she blithely throws around offensive stereotypes without appearing to notice them herself. Her heroine does not participate in the racist dynamic, and the hero sees through it. However, nobody in the story overtly condemns this type of thinking, and Allingham does little to subvert it.

Whether this issue spoils the story for you will depend on how you process it – is the endemic racism of a previous era a blight on the mental landscape, or merely a historical note to be taken into account?

I appreciate Ms. Allingham as a thoughtful person, but still a person of her own time, who was trying to express a vision of egalitarianism that was still a bit out of her reach. I enjoyed the book and its departure from the typical sleuth-as-protagonist format.

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