‘Campion At Christmas’ is a collection of four, unrelated, Albert Campion stories set at Christmas. At fifty-four pages, it’s a slim volume and the stories in it are slight but pleasing. Think of them as two Lebkuchen and two mince pies rather than as a festive feast. Read at Christmas, they add to the charm of the season.
‘On Christmas Day In The Morning’ (1963) finds Albert Campion drinking in the company of the Chief Constable, with whom he has just had a Christmas lunch, The two of them decide to take a postprandial perambulation to look at the site where a postman has been killed by a car that morning. The puzzling thing is that he continued delivering Christmas cards for an improbably long time after being struck, thus making it hard to establish who he was struck by.
What struck me about this story was the juxtaposition of poverty and privilege, Christmas spent alone and Christmas as part of a huge house party and the quiet acceptance of the gap. Campion’s insight quickly cuts through the confusion. In doing so, it compounded the sadness of the postman’s Christmas death with the sadness of a lonely old woman’s Christmas life and it left me in doubt about whether Campion was touched by either.
‘Happy Christmas’ (1962) has Christmas in it but no Albert Campion. Instead, we get a tale of a young couple who love everything Victorian except the Victorian old lady who lives upstairs, who the young wife has taken umbrage with. Unexpected events result in the Victorian lady joining them in lieu of their intended guests and then babysitting for them so the can go out for an evening. In the end, the old lady goes above and beyond and saves the day when the end of the evening threatens to end in violence.
I liked that the modern (1960s) ‘we love everything Victorian‘ couple were unable to see their Victorian neighbour clearly enough to make her real to them. The humour at the couple’s expense is gentle and almost charming. The story as a whole left me more puzzled than pleased. I felt as if I’d swallowed a spoonful of yoghurt when I’d been expecting ice cream.
‘The Case Of The Man With The Sack’ (1937) is the most mainstream, Albert Campion in his prime, story in the book. Albert accepts a last-minute invitation from the daughter of the house, to rescue her from tedious company by coming to stay for Christmas and meet the, not entirely acceptable to her parents, new love of her life. What follows is a classic country house Christmas mystery, powered by theft rather than by murder and solved with ease and insouciant good humour by Campion
This was fun. The mystery wasn’t too hard to solve but I enjoyed watching Campion putting it all together and setting it to rights, all without involving the police. Beneath the story, you could see the veneer of the privileged life of the aristocracy starting to crack under the strain of financial difficulty and social change. The master of the house is unable to find a way to have a conversation with guests who no nothing of hunting, shooting or fishing. The lady of the house is finding pragmatic, covert ways to shore up the lifestyle her husband takes for granted. The daughter of the house is gaily focused on following her heart. The family weaknesses of the family are cast in a sympathetic light by the vulgarity of their nouveau riche guests. It struck me that Campion was as much at a distance from the family as the guests and though he liked one and disliked the other he didn’t belong to either.
‘Word In Season: a story for Christmas‘ (1965) took me by surprise. It’s written from the point of view of Poins, Campion’s Red Setter. It is Christmas Eve and all is not well in the Campion household. Campion has inadvertently created chaos and his wife, having dealt with the mess, has retreated to her room where she can be heard banging things about. Poins, meanwhile, is trying to decide whether to use the privilege, granted to animals in the hour before midnight on Christmas Eve, to use his voice to speak to Albert and comfort him.
This is a charming tale and one that finally gave me a picture of Campion as a human being and not just an emotionally distant but insightful, socially connected but aloof solver of puzzles. It took seeing him through a dog’s eyes to enlist my empathy, which, in a way, is what the story is all about.