Wednesday, June 03, 2020

A Convergence of Coincidences

By Jim Napier
British crime writer Mike Ripley continues to add arrows to his already impressive quiver with his latest addition to the Albert Campion canon. To the delight of the members of the Margery Allingham Society, he has now published his sixth Campion novel. Mr. Campion’s Séance (Severn House) follows Mr. Campion’s War (2018), Mr. Campion’s Abdication (2017), Mr. Campion’s Fault (2016), Mr. Campion’s Fox (2015), and Mr. Campion’s Farewell (2014), all of which have earned this author high praise from both Allingham devotees and the wider reading public. Mr. Campion’s Séance will likely add to that renown.

London, toward the end of World War II: Best-selling crime writer Evadne Childe (born Evadne Walker-Pyne) has published a novel in which the rather disreputable owner of one of the city’s speakeasies (known as “bottle clubs” in London) is robbed and slain. The extraordinary parallels between the plot of that yarn, The Bottle Party Murder, and a recent, real-life homicide at the Grafton Club in Soho raise eyebrows at Scotland Yard. Yet no one is arrested for the bottle club crime.

A full six years later, yet another killing takes place. This one too shares eerie similarities with another novel written by Evadne Childs. The police are again baffled, but can make no headway in the case.

Now fast-forward several more years, and a daring robbery is committed in the heart of London. A postal van is stopped in broad daylight, breeched, and its contents taken away by thieves in front of startled passers-by. The heist had been previously described in one of Evadne Childe’s novels—a work that is still in the hand of her publishers, and has not yet been released! Once again the police look into the matter, but they are unable to establish any link between the author and the crime itself.

Aristocratic amateur sleuth Albert Campion takes up the formidable task of solving these puzzles, assisted by a colorful cast of characters including his manservant (a former burglar), Magersfontein Lugg, his wife, Lady Amanda Fitton, and their precocious 4-year-old son, Rupert. Victims and suspects include Tony Valetta (the late nightclub owner), the intriguingly-named “Rags” Donovan (a former cigarette girl who has taken over the running of the club), two mysterious Belgians, and a spiritualist or medium named Miss Kitto. Campion is further aided in his investigation by the familiar-to-Allingham-readers Superintendent Stanislaus Oates, Detective Superintendent Yeo, and Charles Luke, all of Scotland Yard. This is an ambitious and far-reaching tale, but Ripley carries it off with his characteristic panache.

In the original Campion canon, humor and social commentary were very much a part of Allingham’s style, and Ripley lends it his own special flavor. There are improbably named characters such as Thaddeus P. Honeycutt, and of course, Magersfontein Lugg. And there is no shortage of wit of the nudge-nudge-wink-wink variety, as when author Childe signs into a seedy nightclub as “Mrs. Agatha Leigh Sayers,” or when she is described as “a neighbor of D. Sayers and M. Allingham.” When Lugg expresses his dislike for Belgium—acquired, it seems, during the First World War—Campion inquires why this is so, and Lugg acerbically replies, “I only went once and they started shooting at me. No inclination to go back there.” Often the butt of Campion’s jests, when the sleuth apologizes for his manservant Lugg he says, “he can only read in short bursts because his lips get tired.”

In Mr.Campion’s Séance Mike Ripley undertakes a wide-ranging narrative. Undaunted by the complexity of his project, he seamlessly transports the reader between times and places that would challenge a lesser author. Throughout this novel, Ripley’s affection for Allingham and her characters is apparent, and he never fails to do her work justice. Mr. Campion’s Séance has a cracking good puzzle at its core, and has earned a rightful place on the shelf alongside Allingham’s original works. It will not disappoint Ripley’s readers, either.

(Editor’s note: Mr. Campion’s Seance will be released in the United States, again by Severn House, this coming August.)

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Since 2005 Jim Napier’s book reviews and author interviews have appeared in several Canadian newspapers and on various crime-fiction and literary Web sites, including his own award-winning review site, Deadly Diversions. His debut crime novel, Legacy, was published in the spring of 2017, and the second entry in that series, Ridley’s War, is scheduled for release in the fall of 2020.

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