Review: The Return of Mr. Campion (Uncollected Stories)

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After Margery Allingham’s death in 1966, Agatha Christie lauded her fellow writer:

How sad it is that there are not more of her stories to which we can look forward.  Not only to enjoy on publication, but to read often and often again, enjoying them anew each time.

For those who feel the same, [amazon asin=0380714485&text=The Return of Mr. Campion&chan=default] offers some unexpected delights, including one story never published elsewhere, as well as Christie’s insightful tribute. For a writer as popular and businesslike as Allingham, the limitation of “uncollected stories” means that these are not necessarily her strongest work, but altogether it is a fun read, and an interesting insight into a favorite author.  The fact that even her second-string is so reliably entertaining, makes me admire her even more as an artist.

Three of the stories feature Campion himself – “The Case is Altered,” “The Black Tent,” and “The Curious Affair in Nut Row.” Two more pieces have Allingham writing about her discovery of, and struggles with Campion as a character, which offer a fascinating perspective on her creative process and the ways in which Campion’s popularity affected her writing: “My Friend Mr. Campion,” and “What to do with an Ageing Detective.”

Several of the stories are not mysteries at all, but ghost stories or character pieces – each, however, has a twist that leaves the reader satisfied and smiling. My personal favorite in this collection was “Once in a Lifetime,” a bittersweet meditation on what love and happiness mean to us when we are young, and what they come to mean later in life.

I am plagued by the story “The Beauty King,” about a struggling hairdresser who invents a miraculous and transformative cosmetic process. According to the editor’s note, this story was serialised in 1969 in the Daily Sketch and lost until its appearance in this volume. But I keep thinking I’ve read it before, or something very like it. If anyone can identify a similar story, please do share it in the comments: visionary beautician in the fierce competition of London salons in the early 1930’s, invents a secret process with astonishing results and becomes an overnight sensation; plot involves industrial espionage, romance and betrayal. Any ideas?

The romantic comedy “Sweet and Low” was charming, and shows off Allingham’s lighthearted touch and ability to incorporate broad physical comedy without seeming cheap.  I think her focus on the character’s inner experience make this balance possible.

The supernatural thriller “The Wind Glass” falls into the category Orson Scott Card would term, a tale of dread, rather than a modern concept of horror.  But it was certainly creepy enough that I had to make several tries before steeling myself to read the whole thing.

If straight mystery-puzzlers are your game, this volume may leave you cold.  But if you enjoy Allingham in particular, and light, stylish stories in general, I’d recommend this amusing collection to you.

Enjoy!

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