Friday, 17 December 1999

Margery Allingham: Black Plumes (1940)

Edition: Granada
Review number: 410

Allingham's novels which are not about Albert Campion tend to have a dark and eerie atmosphere. Black Plumes is one of the best of them, and is almost totally mystifying as a detective story. The point of view from which it is written is to a large extent responsible for this, because the central character is one of the witnesses, who has almost no idea of what is going on. Allingham uses Frances Ivory to convey something of the fear and confusion which must surround becoming involved in a murder investigation, placing the story on a more human footing than is often the case with novels following the detective at work.

Frances belongs to an old London family, owners of a private art gallery and art dealers. In recent times strange things have begun to happen: a series of attacks on the gallery, strange behaviour by the head of the business, Frances' brother in law Robert Madrigal, and his encouragement of the obnoxious Henry Lucar. Then Madrigal's body is discovered, Lucar having disappeared, seemingly the obvious (and welcome) suspect.

Characteristically, Allingham populates the novel with grotesques. As well as Lucar, there is the redoubtable ancient Gabrielle Ivory, Frances' grandmother, applying the standards of a forgotten erat; Frances' invalid stepsister, Phillida; and the hearty explorer Godolphin, rescued from the Tibetan prison where he has lain for years, believed dead.

1 comment:

Simon McLeish said...

Re-read this recently, and one word jumped out at me. The witnesses tell the police that they saw a dark skinned man running away from the scene of the crime, and at one point the policemen are discussing it and use the n-word. This is clearly appropriate, in that it would in 1940 be casually used in conversation, but to a modern reader it is jarring in a way that it was never intended to be by Allingham. This is perhaps an argument for censorship, albeit not for the usual reasons: language usage has changed sufficiently that this word effectively no longer has the meaning it did in 1940.