I can’t for the life of me remember where I got it into my mind that Margery Allingham’s Death of a Ghost is an impossible crime novel. Well, I kind of remember; I stumbled upon some blog a few months ago which contained a list of maybe 50 top mysteries featuring an impossibility (a blog that I frustratingly can’t find anymore). There were many of the titles that you expect to see, but also maybe 10 I had never heard of. I started buying these books left and right, and in the middle of that buying binge, I guess I also read a compelling review of Death of a Ghost over at Dead Yesterday; compelling enough to order it. By the time all of the books arrived in the post, my mind was kind of fixated on the impossible crime splurge, and I guess I forgot there was another title mixed in there…
So here’s my review of “a semi-obscure impossible crime”, although there is no impossibility, and I don’t know that Margery Allingham exactly qualifies as obscure. I haven’t read Allingham before, yet her name is familiar enough that I think even non-mystery readers recognize it as being associated with the genre. Knowing that she has a fairly large library, I was curious to see what I’d get.
The beginning of Death of a Ghost is… a bit stodgy. I swear it took me 30 minutes to get through the first chapter, and I found myself constantly rereading paragraphs. Allingham introduces a cast that I found frustratingly difficult to keep track of (really, do you have to have both a Linda and a Lisa?). If ever there was a book where I longed for one of those dramatis personae pages, this was it.
Once you get through the thick fog, the plot’s actually kind of interesting. A famous artist left his widow twelve paintings unseen by the rest of the world. Beginning a decade after his death, one painting is made public each year. We find ourselves in 1930 (despite the book being published in 1934), just in time for the revealing of the eighth painting.
The public showing is interrupted by a power outage, and when the lights come on, one of the people that I couldn’t keep track of is found dead; stabbed through the heart with an ornamental pair of scissors. “Is this the impossibility?!?!?” you can imagine my brain feverishly wondering.
Death of a Ghost is very much a story about the art scene, and “scene” books tend to be more miss than hit for me. Whether it’s theatre, art, cinema, or whatever; I don’t know, it usually doesn’t click for me. Allingham was surprisingly successful though, and the art-centric parts were mostly interesting diversions. Still, much of the writing felt a bit heavy.
And then it was like a switch got flipped. About midway through the book, Allingham presents an excellent setup for a second murder (again of a character whose identity/role I couldn’t quite recall), and the book somewhat takes off from there. I say “somewhat”, because you could still probably lop 30 pages off the second half and be better off (my Penguin edition proudly declares itself unabridged…).
Still, it’s a chilling setup, in which Allingham forewarns you that a particular character is about to die, and then leaves you with this horrifying little question of how, when, and why. From that point on the pace of the story really picked up, the writing felt lighter, and I was engrossed to the end.
One of the bigger surprises for me was that Allingham wasn’t writing a conventional mystery. For one, amateur detective Albert Campion certainly is not of the Poirot, Fell, etc, etc, variety of, um, detectives, because I don’t know that he actually does any detecting. Instead he comes across as more your standard point of view character with the inside scoop on the crime, and if I hadn’t already recognized Campion’s name, I would have been thoroughly surprised that some other detective didn’t show up to solve the case. As it is, Campion somewhat blunders his way to a conclusion – I won’t quite call it a solution – and if anything, is spoon fed the entire explanation and evidence by another character.
Second, this isn’t really a whodunnit, but more of a how-will-they-be-caught. The killer’s identity is a secret for the first portion, but an unmasking occurs with quite a bit of book left. And man, that unmasking may be the highlight of the book, just because it’s flat out hilarious. After that, the story becomes more of a cat and mouse thriller; not really my thing, but really well done in this case.
The end is a bit of a mixed bag. Allingham has some clever motives behind it all, yet she somewhat fumbles the delivery of them. Plus, the fate of the villain – yeesh, I still grimace thinking about it… It’s one of those bits that kind of tarnishes everything that came before.
There’s enough “meh” to Death of a Ghost that I’m not going to be in the market for more Allingham any time soon. Still, I actually really enjoyed the second half of the book. This isn’t one that I’ll flat out recommend, but I’d love to hear your thoughts if you’ve read it.