It’s one of the most mesmerizing scenes of a death that I’ve read in a murder mystery. A man is standing on a bridge over a small river (or large creek). He’s hit on the head and tumbles to the bank below. His body lies undiscovered – but not undisturbed – for a week. And it is paired with a second death, of an old man of apparently natural causes but (this is a murder mystery), we will come to discover, something else entirely.
This riveting scene is how Margery Allingham opens The Beckoning Lady, originally published in 1955 and recently reissued. It is one of the later Albert Campion novels; he’s now married and has a son who’s inherited his mother’s blazing red hair and his father’s inquisitiveness. Campion, Allingham’s celebrated detective, still looks slightly insipid to the casual observer but it is a look that masks a probing, first-class mind.
The Campions are in the country for summer holiday, joined by Divisional Detective Chief Inspector Charles Luke, recovering from gunshot wounds received during a recent (and overall successful) case. Luke soon finds himself the object of attention from one of the local unmarried ladies, and for all his squirming and resistance we suspect he’ll succumb. It’s not an Allingham mystery without some level of romance.
This is the area where Mrs. Campion grew up; she knows all the locals and their histories. Everyone is mourning the recent death of the old man known as “Uncle William,” who had been determined to live at least through Guy Fawkes Day in November. And planning is underway for the Midsummer’s Eve party at The Beckoning Lady, the home of close friends of the Campions (it was, apparently, a country pub at one time, thus explaining the name).
Plots and sub-plots run through the story – designs on getting control of The Beckoning Lady and its surrounding property, a watcher who keeps an eye on the body, a local police investigator who may be one of the most annoying characters Allingham created, and a nearby estate that is less a house and more something from a Hollywood set.
Allingham (1904-1955) is associated with the Golden Age of mystery writing – the 1920s and 1930s – but continued to write the Campion and other stories until her death. Campion was one of the better known fictional detectives of the period, along with Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey, and others. She wrote some 28 novels or story collections featuring Albert Campion and 15 other mystery works.
The Beckoning Lady requires some close reading discipline to keep tracks of sub-plots, all of the characters, and some of the English euphemisms, but it is another fine story produced by one of the best mystery novelists.
Top illustration: “Couple on Bridge” by David Wagner via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.