Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Battered Penguins - The Case of the Late Pig

As I think I have already conveyed in an earlier post, I love Margery Allingham. I've loved her from the first moment I opened one of her books, but I've loved her even more since I read a short biography of her, which suggested she had a far from easy love life and died a pretty miserable death. How could this be, when she was both funny and wise - and wrote so beautifully?

Allingham's best known creation is Albert Campion, an enigmatic figure, who dabbles in detective work - describing himself thus: "I am not one of these intellectual sleuths, I am afraid. My mind does not work like an adding machine, taking the facts in neatly one by one and doing the work as it goes along. I am more like the bloke with the sack and spiked stick. I collect all the odds and ends I can see and turn out the bag at the lunch hour" - and has a rather large, redeemed ex-criminal as his man-servant, a fellow called Lugg who, as Campion puts it, 'in spite of magnificent qualities has elements of the Oaf about him'.

In The Case of the Late Pig Campion emerges a tiny bit from his usual mysteriousness by telling the story in the first person -  although readers hoping for any real self-revelation will, I should immediately point out, be fairly disappointed. One thing one does learn, however, is that as a child he had a 'collection of skeleton leaves'; another is that he is, despite his reservations, quite devoted to Lugg. In addition, we discover that he was once smitten by a girl called Janet who he has known 'on and off, for twenty-three years. When I first saw her she was bald and pinkly horrible. I was almost sick at the sight of her, and was sent out into the garden until I had recovered my manners.'

As must be obvious from the above, we are not dealing here with an angst-ridden, hard-boiled gumshoe. Angst and hard-boiledness are not at all what Allingham's books are about - or at least not overtly. Instead of grit and horror, what you get in a Campion story is humour and wisdom. While the thread of the mystery ambles through the text, giving it a beginning, middle and end, we do not feel a tremendous urgency about finding its solution. Whodunnit is the genre but it is not what really holds the reader's - or this reader's anyway - main attention.

Instead of excitement and a desperate need to find out the name of the perpetrator, what carries you along in these books is the pleasure of the scenery you pass through. Allingham conjures up a Wooster-like world, full of buildings topped with parapets that 'finish off the flat fronts of Georgian houses and always remind me of the topping of marzipan icing on a very good fruit cake' or fronted by 'great white pillars ... built by an architect who had seen the BM and never forgotten it' - each one 'a millstone round somebody's neck' - and peopled by characters such as 'Guffy Randall' and 'Lofty, who is now holding down his seat in the Peers with a passionate determination more creditable than necessary'.

Onto this framework - and that of the murder story - Allingham then throws amusing observations and rather lovely descriptions such as the ones that follow, switching in tone between flippant and elegiac without apparent effort:

"A funeral is an impressive business even among the marble angels and broken columns of civilization. Here, out of the world in the rain-soaked silence of a forgotten hillside, it was both grim and sad."

"Even at twelve and a half Pig had had several revolting personal habits."

"It is about as easy to describe Whippet as it is to describe water or a sound in the night ... I don't know what he looks like, except that presumably he has a face, since it would be an omission that I should have been certain to observe. He had on some sort of grey-brown coat which merged with the dead cow-parsley and he looked at me with that  vacancy which is yet recognition."

"Leo had very bright blue eyes which, like most soldiers', are of an almost startling innocence of expression."

" struck me then as odd that the boy should really be so very much the father of the man. It's a serious thought when you look at some children."

"No English country house is worthy of the name if it is not breathtaking at half past six on a June evening..."

"...the sweet cool fragrance of old wood and flowers which is the true smell of your good country house..."

She adds in exchanges like this one, which reminds me of the kind of conversation I would sometimes have with my father, in which for a moment I glimpsed whole orders of until-then hidden rules for life:

"'What were you playing? Bridge?'
Leo looked scandalising. 'Before lunch? No my dear boy. Poker. Wouldn't play bridge before lunch.'"

Last but not least, she chucks in a villain, who, given her obvious conservatism, (and I should point out that I don't use that word in any kind of hostile way), it is hard not to recognise as such, long before his culpability is eventually confirmed:

"He was a red-hot innovator, we discovered. He spoke with passion of the insanitary condition of the thatched cottages and the necessity of bringing culture into the life of the average villager, betraying, I thought, a lack of acquaintance with either the thatched cottage or, of course, the villager in question, who, as every countryman knows, does not exist."

A wrong un, clearly. Case closed.

In conclusion, if you are looking for a light, diverting book to curl up with on a rainy Sunday, The Case of the Late Pig should certainly fit the bill.

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