"The lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside."- Sherlock Holmes ("The Adventure of the Copper Beeches," from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, 1892)
Margery Allingham is often grouped together with Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Dame Ngaio Marsh as one of the four "Queens of Crime" of their time, whose work garnered renewed attention during the renaissance era of the past fifteen years – resulting in numerous reprints.
The praise lobbed at Allingham's legacy is usually reserved for the series literary style, characterization and a variety of styles within the series, which ranges from 1920s thrillers and psychological studies to proper detective stories. It's a combination that charmed readers back then as well as a modern horde of mystery readers, but I had to give up on Allingham somewhere around 2006. I remember slugging through Death of a Ghost (1934), More Work for the Undertaker (1949) and abandoning Flowers for the Judge (1936) halfway through, which (mind you) was centered on an impossible disappearance. They didn't do it for me and simply never bothered with Allingham again.
Earlier this month, I read one of Allingham's short stories, "The Border-Line Case" from Mr. Campion: Criminologist (1937), in Otto Penzler's The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries (2014) and was pleasantly surprised by what I found. Had the time come to give Allingham, Campion and Lugg a second change? There's one book in particular that has always been recommended, The Case of the Late Pig (1937), if I ever wanted to take another shot at the series. And, I have to say, it's definitely the best one I have read from her thus far!
The narrator of The Case of the Late Pig is Mr. Albert Campion himself, who learns from the obituaries in The Times, read out loud by Lugg, about the untimely passing of an old acquaintance – a sadistic school bully, "Pig Peters," from Campion's schooldays. Campion remembers how Pig Peters "took three square inches of skin off" his chest with a penknife and held him "over an unlighted gas jet" until he passed out, which made Campion promise to go to his funeral one day. However, the case doesn't kick off until several months later when a murder happens at the village where the funeral took place and the victim is none other than Pig Peters!
Surprisingly, Robert Adey neglected to mention The Case of the Late Pig in Locked Room Murders and Other Impossible Crimes (1991), but one of the three seemingly impossible situations that occur in this story actually has a solution that qualifies it as a (open space) locked room mystery.
Pig Peters was dozing in a deckchair when a heavy, stone flowerpot, which must have been pushed from its parapet, crushed his head but everyone is in possession of a sturdy alibi. It's such an impossible situation that official police momentarily considered it possible they're all in it together. Plot-wise, the best and most satisfying portion of the story. The way in which everyone is placed and observed different aspects of the crime, from watching the victim in his chair to seeing the flower pot sail pass an upper floor window, gives you the idea the characters are moving around in an actual three-dimensional environment and love this approach with locked room mysteries (e.g. Herbert Resnicow). The gist of the trick is old, but I never saw it used like this. So points for that.
Unfortunately, the questions surrounding the disappearance of a corpse from a secured shed and the double death of Pig Peters are given less consideration, which is a pity, but what (perhaps) initially put me off Allingham was her apparent willingness to sacrifice logical plot advancement in favor of telling a story. The example I can give from The Case of the Late Pig is how the exhumation of Pig Peters, who was supposedly buried six months before he was murdered, wasn't brought up until towards the end and it was to lure out the killer. Wouldn't that be the first thing you would do in this case? And couldn't an early exhumation have prevented the second murder? Why would the murderer take the risk to prop the second victim up like a scarecrow in a cornfield?
Otherwise, The Case of the Late Pig was a pleasantly written, passably plotted detective story that read like an episode of the Midsomer Murders. Not bad... for an Allingham.