Death of a Ghost – Margery Allingham (1934)

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.

17 thoughts on “Death of a Ghost – Margery Allingham (1934)”

  1. I’ve read quite a few Allinghams and they’ve usually left me feeling a bit “meh” — in part, no doubt, because they’re not quite my style of novel. As you say, Campion is more sort of there to see things rather than detect anything, and her solutions to tend to fall into the “conclusion” category; great if you’re into a more crime novel style, which I think might explain her continuing popularity today, but it’s not what I look for.

    The closest she got to detection in my experience is Police at the Funeral, and if you ever read that and are able to explain why it’s called Police at the Funeral I’d be very grateful…

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    1. Everyone seems to recommend Tiger in the Smoke, although the plot summaries that I’ve seen don’t exactly seem up my alley. Who knowns though, sometime you can stumble upon something that you didn’t know you wanted to read.

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      1. Allingham tended not to write ‘straight’ detective fiction. Police at the Funeral is excellent – multiple murders in a Cambridge family – and has a great surprise solution. A trio of works in the 1930s – Flowers for the Judge (publishing), Dancers in Mourning (theatre), and The Fashion in Shrouds (society) – made her name. The Case of the Late Pig is delightful; this is a novella narrated by Campion himself, and has a clever scheme and a memorable murder method. More Work for the Undertaker has a splendidly Dickensian family in London; lots of imagination, but you might find the plot cluttered. I’m not a fan of Tiger in the Smoke; I much prefer Hide My Eyes (1958), another crime novel.

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      2. My feeling is that The Tiger in the Smoke is Allingham’s The Hollow Man — regarded as her ‘best’ simply because it’s the one most people have read. It’s a straight thriller set in a very moody London with Campion and a killer on a collision course — fine if you like that kind of thing, but she wrote much better for my tastes.

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        1. Kind of an interesting topic – which other authors have a Hollow Man? I suppose Christie has Murder on the Orient Express, although perhaps that statement is worthy of debate. Maybe Through a Glass Darkly, The Moving Toyshop, Wilders Walk Away, and Nine Times Nine?

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          1. Hmmm, interesting idea. If “a Hollow Man” as I used it is understood to mean “a title people will recommend arbitrarily, regardless of tastes, under the impression that it’s the one that gives the best flavour of the author’s work” I’d say there’s:

            Allingham – Tiger in the Smoke
            Berkeley – Poisoned Chocolates Case
            Blake – The Beast Must Die
            Brand – Green for Danger
            Bruce – Case for Three Detectives
            Carr – The Hollow Man (imagine if t’were another…!)
            Crispin – The Moving Toyshop
            Crofts – The Cask
            Freeman – The Singing Bone
            Hare – Tragedy at Law
            Heyer – Envious Casca
            Hull – Murder of my Aunt
            Iles – Malice Aforethought
            Queen – The Greek Coffin Mystery
            Rawson – Death from a Top Hat
            Sayers – The Nine Tailors
            Wade – Heir Presumptive

            And then you have authors who probably run the gamut of recommendations:

            Christie
            Gardner
            Innes
            Lorac
            Marsh
            Mitchell
            Tey

            Maybe *this* is why Marsh, Mitchell, and Tey are considered among the Queens, because the sheer breadth of recommendations offered — that lack of consensus about which is the “best one” — gives the impression that they produced a uniformly excellent output.

            Also, it tickles me no end that you think Herbert Brean has a Hollow Man; only about seven of us even know who Herbert Brean is 🙂 I love the guy, I legitimately believe he’s one of the most underappreciated mystery writers of the second half of the 20th century, but, c’mon.

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          2. Ha, well, whenever anyone does mention Brean, you know which book they’re going to bring up, although we can both attest that there are others of equal if not better quality.

            Some comments on your list:
            – The Beast Must Die: just started reading this and I’m not exactly enthusiastic about finishing it.
            – The Singing Bone: read this last week, review pending.
            – The Cask: is it really that recommended? Perhaps your reviews have shifted my thinking, but it seems to be The Sea Mystery that everyone talks about.
            – Envious Casca: planning this a winter read and I haven’t really seen many review of it. I thought I was flying under the radar, but apparently not.
            – The Greek Coffin Mystery: I contemplated this one, but Queen in my mind has about 5 titles that people are going to equally recommend, pushing him more into your Christie category.

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          3. Some thoughts on your thoughts, bearing in mind that all levels of this thought-ception are purely my opinions and therefore open to all manner of debate, disproof, and being ignored:

            If I may be so arrogant, I feel like a lot of the recent discussion around Crofts and The Sea Mystery happened in the wake of me reviewing and loving it. Remember that prior to this recent set of reprints it was pretty difficult to find him for a decade or more (the House of Stratus reprints in 2000 disappearing into the hands of collectors and fans). And The Cask is absurdly famous, to the extent that I bet most of the people who know loosely of Crofts can name that and none other of his titles.

            Envious Casca isn’t hugely discussed because, let’s be honest, Heyer’s not that good. I’ve read about six of hers and honestly can remember very little about them. Yes, she has her fans, everyone does, but she’s more recognised as a Romance novelist who dabbled in detection (and she didn’t even plot her detective novels, right? Or is that an urban myth?).

            I dunno about Queen. I feel like there’s a tendency to say “the early Nationality Thing books are the good ones” but, if asked for specific titles, most people have read TGC and not much else. It’s not a book that I imagine is going to inspire the rabid desire to dive into the oeuvre in most people. Like, it’s fun, but it’s also exhausting.

            Looking forward to your thoughts on The Singing Bone. And thanks for reminding me that I need to read more Brean (not that I ever forget, I’m just stretching him out for as long as I can…).

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          4. I absolutely think that you can attribute recent discussions around Crofts and The Sea Mystery to you. I didn’t realize that The Cask was so famous though. I really need to read some more of his stuff, and (spoilers for my review) after reading The Singing Bone, I’m longing for some seafaring mysteries. I get the sense that Crofts might have been good at those. Any recommendations?

            So, am I going to enjoy Envious Casca….? It’s a locked room from what I’ve seen.

            I do agree that TGC gets thrown around with Queen (undeservedly if I might say so), but equally I see The Siamese Twin Mystery, Calamity Town, and Cat of Many Tails getting mentions.

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          5. Ah, but with those Queen recommendations do consider that you hang out in only the most select company — well-read, enthusiastic GAD fans — and so there’s a little more information behind them. I was thinking more of the general awareness among people who read and have dipped into GAD rather than made a — for want of a better word — study of it.

            At least that explains your citing of Herbert Brean 😄

            Envious Casca is a locked room, but it’s more about the (thoroughly, deliberately?) unlikeable characters than the mystery. I got bored with it and skipped ahead. At least, I think it was that one.

            Crofts and sea-faring mysteries…dunno, I’ve only read 14 or so and while some have elements of that in them (the crime in Mystery in the Channel, the setup and denouement of The Cheyne Mystery) I dunno if I’d label them “sea-faring” because it depends what element of that you’re hankering after. You could certainly do much worse than Mystery in the Channel (which the BL put out) because there’s plenty of ship-based shenanigans and crossing the English Channel (er, spoilers…?). Give it a go, and blame me if you don’t like it.

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      3. The question of other authors’ HOLLOW MANs is an interesting one…I think most GAD writers do have that one book which seems to be more famous/popular than their other stuff, but doesn’t always deserve that spot.

        – Christianna Brand – GREEN FOR DANGER (great book which overshadows other equally great books)
        – Nicholas Blake – THE BEAST MUST DIE (pretty good book which overshadows better books)
        – Cyril Hare – TRAGEDY AT LAW (*worse* than most of his other books, in my opinion)
        – Leo Bruce – CASE FOR THREE DETECTIVES (really is much better than his other books)

        Definitely THE DAUGHTER OF TIME for Josephine Tey and also THE POISONED CHOCOLATES CASE for Anthony Berkeley unless you count his Francis Iles books, but I haven’t read enough of either author to say whether those books deserve to be at the top. (POISONED CHOCOLATES would be hard to beat, though.)

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        1. I had suspected that The Beast Must Die might fit the category (I just started reading it) and was tempted to suggest Case for Three Detectives, but I haven’t read Bruce’s other material.

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  2. Death of a Ghost, More Work for the Undertaker and Flowers for the Judge (didn’t finish it) convinced me Allingham wasn’t for me. At least not her novels. Allingham seems to have been much better, as a mystery writer, in the novella/short story format. I agree with Nick that The Case of the Late Pig is delightful and “The Border-Line Case” is a fun impossible crime story.

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  3. Count me into the “meh” category for Allingham, with the exception of DANCERS IN MOURNING which I absolutely love. I did think DEATH OF A GHOST was OK; the structure with the killer being revealed halfway through reminded me of some of Dorothy Sayers’ better books (WHOSE BODY?, STRONG POISON, HAVE HIS CARCASE), although Sayers usually did it better.

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  4. My opinion of the book is the same as yours, I would not like to think that this book put you off Allingham as some of her other books are very interesting. Try Sweet Danger, Mystery Mile, The Beckoning Lady, Coroners Pidgin, More work for the Undertaker.
    I have the whole series of Allingham books these are a few that I enjoy.
    I cant say they are all good, but she does fill it up with trivia

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