Book review by Sylvia D.
My Queen of Crime novel was Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham (pub 1931 by Heinemann. My edition is a Penguin Classic Crime 1987, one of many reprints). It’s the fourth of the Campion series and was made into a two part TV production in 1989.
Picture a large gloomy Victorian house covered with Virginia creeper and ivy where nothing has changed for 60 years. It is located in Socrates Close, off the Trumpington Road in Cambridge. Remember Socrates died from hemlock poisoning.
In the house lives Mrs Caroline Faraday, 80-something, petite, autocratic, who wears very old-fashioned clothes with loads of lace. She insists everything should always happen at the same time and everyone should be punctual. She doesn’t tolerate any frivolities such as morning tea and won’t allow any alcohol in the house. With her live her son, William, who is elderly, roundish, subject to periods of amnesia and likes a tipple, her elder daughter, Julia, ‘spinster of the parish’, a well into middle age, overweight, bad-tempered woman and the second daughter, Kitty, a pathetic widow who dissolves into hysterics at the slightest provocation.
Also in the house is Andrew, Mrs Faraday’s nephew, rumoured to be a very unpleasant person, dependent on his aunt for board and lodging after losing money in unwise investements. There are a number of servants, particular big, strong Alice who has been with the family for 30 years and finally Joyce, Mrs Faraday’s great niece who is acting temporarily as a sort of companion to her aunt and who is engaged to Marcus, son of the family solicitor. There are occasional unwelcome visits by George Makepeace Faraday, the children’s cousin who is a drunkard and turns out to be blackmailing Mrs Faraday.
Marcus invites Campion down as Andrew has disappeared. No sooner has he arrived than Andrew’s tied up body – he has been shot – is found in the river near Granchester. The weight from the grandfather clock which falls off every 15 years is missing, as is William’s service revolver and some window cord from the nursery window. In quick succession Julia dies from suspected poisoning (hemlock in her surreptitious morning cup of tea), William is mildly poisoned but doesn’t die and then a very drunk George Faraday, loudly threatening to bring scandal on the family, has demanded accommodation in the house and is found dead locked in Andrew’s old room, his body smelling of bitter almonds (cyanide).
Campion – and the reader – are now confronted with a problem as the murders are obviously being committed by someone in the house – but by whom? None of the remaining members of the family seems physically capable of carrying all of them out. William falls under suspicion for a time but Campion proves that he has an alibi. Campion of course finally works it out and the resolution is ingenious and unexpected.
I like Campion – he is probably middle-class, educated at Cambridge but kind and self-effacing. He has a hilarious, morose valet called Magersfontein Lugg. He wears large horn-rimmed glasses which give him the air of ‘friendly stupidity’, and he doesn’t delight in showing the police up – indeed the Inspector, Stanislaus Oates, in charge of the case is a friend of his. Joyce told Campion, ‘I was afraid you were going to be one of those clever people one reads about who know everything from the beginning and bring the whole explanation out of their sleeves when they’ve completed a chain of evidence, like a conjuror at a children’s party’ – (p 110). Doubtless a dig at other crime writers of the period.
Allingham makes clever use of descriptions of people’s room to illuminate their characters. Julia’s for instance,
‘was an overbearingly cluttered apartment. It was crammed full of furniture of every possible description, and achieved fussiness without femininity. The two large windows had three sets of curtains each; Nottingham lace gave way to frilled muslin and frilled muslin to yellow damask looped with great knots of silk cable which looked as though it would have held a liner. The keynote of the whole scheme of decoration was drapery. The fireplace was surrounded with loops of the same yellow damask, and the bed, the focusing point, the rococo pièce-de-resistance of the whole room, was befrilled and befurbelowed until its original shape was lost altogether’ (p 104).
Mrs Faraday’s ‘private apartment’, on the other hand,
‘was a perfect Queen Anne sitting-room, totally unexpected in this Victorian strong-hold. The walls were white panelled and hung with delicate mezzotints. The old rose of the Chinese carpet was echoed in the brocaded hangings which framed the gentle bow of the window. The old walnut furniture reflected softly the bright fire in the grate. The candle-sticks were silver and the upholstery covered with needlework. A beautiful room expressing a taste in direct opposition to the ostentatious solidity of the rest of the house. Great-aunt Caroline in her laces seemed the natural owner of such a period gem’ – (p 66).
Andrew’s room is unexpected,
‘Apart from a wall of bookshelves in the midst of which there was a small writing-desk, the room might have belonged to a modern hermit. It was large and inexpressibly bare, with white walls and no carpet, save for a small jute bath-mat set beside the bed. This was of the truckle variety and it looked hard and thinly covered. A simple wooden stand with a small mirror above it served as a dressing-table and supported some half-dozen photographs. The simplicity and poverty of the room compared with the solid comfort of the rest of the house, was startling to the point of theatricality’ – (p 102).
Why does Andrew chose to play at being the poor relation?
I’m not an avid reader of crime novels but I enjoyed Police at the Funeral. A little sketch map of the house and an illustrated table showing the relationships of Mrs Faraday’s dependents made one think of Cluedo! It was, nevertheless, both entertaining and unusual, albeit a little contrived. The device of setting the story in a stuffy Victorian house and giving the Faradays such a restrictive environment made it feel very claustrophobic. The novel, though, couldn’t have been written today as the so-called scandal bit which the modern reader would consider racist wouldn’t have worked because of the way social attitudes have changed.
I still haven’t figured out why it is entitled Police at the Funeral when there is no funeral…