Just returned from years overseas on a secret mission, Albert Campion is relaxing in his bath when his servant Lugg and a lady of unmistakably aristocratic bearing appear in his flat carrying the corpse of a woman.
At first Campion is unwilling to get involved, but he is forced to bring his powers of protection to bear on the case, and to solve not only the mystery of the murdered woman but also the alarming disappearance of some well-known art treasures.
‘Coroner’s Pidgin’ was my first time reading an Albert Campion novel. Normally, I wouldn’t jump into a series at the twelfth book, but this was a group read, so I grabbed a copy of the audiobook from my local library and dived in.
I wasn’t sure what to expect. My only experience of Campion was in short stories, most of which seemed to portray him as a slightly down-market Lord Peter Wimsey.
The book took me completely by surprise because it has so much more depth than the short stories. The opening of the book was unconventional and quite funny. It reminded me of the opening of the first Wimsey novel, ‘Whose Body’ except the pace was better and the lines funnier. About twenty per cent in, the tone changed and things took a much darker turn, with Campion finding himself kidnapped and assaulted and then discovering that the body that was being hidden in his flat without his permission, was that of a woman who had been murdered.
From there on in I lost myself in the mystery, which became ever more complex as Campion became more sombre.
Several things distinguished ‘Coroner’s Pidgin’ from other Golden Age Mysteries that I’ve read.
Firstly, Campion feels both grown-up and compassionate. He sees people clearly but tries not to judge them harshly. Beneath the veneer of charm and unflappability, Albert Campion seems to be a compassionate man. He’s not a hunter like Poirot or an ambush predator like Marple. He’s someone who tries to smooth things out and make things right while causing the minimum amount of harm.
Part of the being a grown-up thing seems to come from Campion’s secret and undisclosed work in the war. One of the strong themes of the book is the dislocation experienced by Campion and one of the other key characters when they try to live in civilian London at the same time as surviving while fighting in a war. Campion comes back to a London so bomb-damaged that he has difficulty navigating it and with a restless population that moves more quickly and takes more risks than he was used to. One of the other characters is struggling to reconcile being a Wing Commander in the RAF with its high rates of pilot attrition and his pre-war lifestyle as a patron of the arts and the head of found-family household of talented, unconventional people.
Secondly, the police were not only competent but they were firmly in charge of the investigation. I thought this made the whole story more interesting and more credible. For once, the amateur sleuth knew less about what was going on than the police did and was also clear that his role was to assist, not to lead.
I also liked that the way the book showed some of the aristocracy as becoming out of step with the mood of England in 1945. They were still trying to exercise privileges that placed them above the law at a time when the law had become more draconian and not at all forgiving.
The plot was clever if a little elaborate. I enjoyed the exposition and I thought the characters were well-drawn, I especially admired the way the book showed the dynamics of a clique that had started to sour and was failing to adapt to changing circumstances.
Although the pace worked in most of the book, I felt the ending, at least the part at the Inquest dragged a little.
I’m glad that ‘Coroner’s Pidgin’ was part of a reading challenge. Without that, I’d have missed out on a good book and on finding another author to read
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