A.S. Byatt once wrote, "I have never been able to read Agatha Christie - the pleasure is purely in the puzzle, and the reader is toyed with by someone who didn't decide herself who the killer was until the end of the writing." I appreciate her point, but this is never a problem I have with Christie. She wraps a sometimes too conveniently neat package, but it is so well peppered with insights into human nature and invests me so fully in the process that I am more than willing to accept the feelings of mild condescension that result from those dramatic end of novel revelations.
But like Byatt, who writes of her appreciation of Margery Allingham in this piece, I appreciate Allingham's Albert Campion novels more. I just started reading them last year because of this article by Byatt, and have enjoyed each one - morality's many shades of gray, the lack of high drama, her gift for detailed descriptions of idiosyncratic behaviors, and her ability to position what is truly commonplace in differing communities as just that regardless of whether it feels familiar or comfortable for the reader. A grand diversity of experience and beliefs.
The Beckoning Lady was published in 1955 with this jacket summary:
"Old William Faraday is dead, apparently of natural causes. Another man is dead too, and it was certainly murder. Mr Campion and his family are back in Pontisbright, along with Magersfontein Lugg and DCI Charles Luke. Danger is hardly unknown in this idyllic Suffolk village, but it is a less romantic peril than on Mr Campion's first visit, more than twenty years ago. Mr Campion's friends Minnie and Tonker Cassands put on a cheerful face as they prepare for their annual party at Minnie's house, The Beckoning Lady, but Minnie has serious problems with the Inland Revenue - and the dead man in the ditch is a tax inspector. Mr Campion has a formidable adversary in Superintendent Fred South of the Suffolk Police, whom we encountered in 'Safer than Love'. And to cap it all, Charlie Luke falls like a ton of bricks for the most unsuitable girl imaginable..."
It sounds like it could get a bit heavy-handed, doesn't it? But the unflappable Campion's demeanor and the eccentricities of the inhabitants of this Suffolk village render the could-be points of high drama with a naturalness, an equanimity that characterizes the whole series. Like with Simenon's Maigret books, this treatment of character and the occasional under-dramatizing of the actual crimes leads to much richer psychological portraits than most mysteries.
One of my favorite parts of this book, and I will not give anything away by sharing it as it happens right at the beginning, is Allingham's description of the dead body beneath the plank bridge that no one realizes is there. Yet. It is described very much as object, not tied to any person so as to both not reveal the identity and to emphasize the pragmatic aspects of the countryside in which the story takes place.
"All through what was left of the first day, one body lay hidden between the steep sides of the dry ditch, secret on a bed of leaves. From the moment when it had toppled so suddenly from the plank bridge leading to the stile it had vanished from sight. The green waves of ribbon grass and periwinkle which fringed the verges had parted as it passed, to swing up again immediately, so that there was now only one way of catching a glimpse of it. That was to step down on the other side, where the chasm was wider and less overgrown, stoop under the bridge where lichen and black fungus made an evil ceiling, and peer into the translucent tunnel beyond."
Stunning prose. Nature is already taking back the body, and as time passes and many walk by and fling various forms of detritus in the direction of the body without knowing it is there, there are these gorgeously simple moments in which the body is divorced from humanity.
This alone would have been enough for me but then come the descriptions of the party preparations and the party itself, all insightful peeks into the creations of art or drama that contrast with naturally artful elements of life including love.
I have quite a few more Campion novels to go, and am happily looking forward to them all.