I became an Albert Campion fan over twenty years ago when I saw Peter Davison (right) play the independent sleuth on PBS Mystery, back when Vincent Price was being replaced by Diana Rigg as the series host. I enjoyed Davison's quirky portrayal of the main character and the lighthearted stories set in beautiful old mansions amid scenic Britain. I also really liked the theme music, a bit melancholy if I remember correctly. It was natural that I would then seek out the novels and read them in order. Over the course of a dozen years I read nineteen of the books, slightly out of order, the last in 2002.
Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, many of our veteran mystery readers knew Margery Allingham and her Albert Campion mysteries. Her name was paired with Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, all of whom had long writing careers. Then she was somewhat forgotten. In the late 1990s, when I tried to get replacement copies of the mysteries, I found they were out of print. Two years ago I rejoiced when I found new editions published by Felony & Mayhem at the Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City. When I got back to the library, I ordered all the titles that I could. I have been suggesting them to readers ever since.
Just this past month I have begun reading the series again, starting with book one, which may be about the worst book to suggest to a prospective Campion reader. In The Crime at Black Dudley, first published in 1929, Albert Campion was an just a member of the supporting cast. It was somebody else's story, but the oddball Campion kept stealing the spotlight. I am sure that if Allingham did not realize it herself someone told her that she needed to promote Campion to the number one spot in subsequent books. It is an entertaining story with plenty of mystery, action, and romance, but only readers who want to see the evolution of Campion should read this uneven book first.
Allingham essentially started over with book two, Mystery Mile. Campion's character was much the same - idiosyncratic, frenetic, puzzling - but the author began to give him a context from which to work. She hinted that he was the black sheep of an aristocratic family (maybe even a royal), vaguely suggested his history of working alongside Scotland Yard in solving cases important to the nation, and located him in a little apartment above a neighborhood police station. Most importantly, she introduced his manservant, the former criminal Magersfontein Lugg. In Mystery Mile, Campion agreed to protect an American judge who had moved to England with his son and daughter to escape the revenge of the mafia. Campion arranged the rental of an old and isolated estate from a cash-strapped brother and sister, but the British organized crime figures followed the judge and his party. With wit and invention, Campion beat the bad guys, and all the young couples fell in love.
I also just reread Look to the Lady, book three. It might be the best of the entire series as it has frightening creatures in the woods, ghosts in towers, old professors, evil widows, and somewhat inept but still serious criminals. Again, Campion saves a down-on-their-luck old British family from ruin, and the youngsters fall in love. It is a lot of fun to read. They all are.
Allingham, Margery. The Crime at Black Dudley. Felony & Mayhem, 2006. ISBN 9781933397429
Allingham, Margery. Mystery Mile. Felony & Mayhem, 2006. ISBN 9781933397443
Allingham, Margery. Look to the Lady. Felony & Mayhem, 2006. ISBN 9781933397573