Traitor’s Purse by Margery Allingham

Traitor's_PurseAlbert Campion awakes in a hospital bed and… well, he’s got absolutely no idea how he got there. Or what he was doing. And who exactly he is… Suspected of assaulting a police officer, Campion goes on the run. Soon, however, he finds himself in the middle of the intrigue that put him in hospital in the first place.

The ancient order of the Masters of Bridge, a town in south-west England, are at the centre of mysterious goings-on that Campion was investigating but now, with his memory seemingly lost forever, he finds himself playing a dangerous game. Can he fool his mysterious adversaries into thinking that they’re up against Campion at the height of his powers? But given that he can’t even recognise his fiancée and his manservant Lugg, will he be able to fool anyone?

For someone who has read a lot of crime fiction, it’s a little embarrassing to admit that this is the first Margery Allingham/Campion novel that I’ve read. I have a memory of the BBC TV series – basically, Peter Davison acting posh and Brian Glover doing what Brian Glover did best – but not much more than that. So I was coming into this one completely cold.

And it probably wasn’t the best place to start – a book told entirely from the hero’s point of view when the hero doesn’t know who he is and is apparently acting out of character. So presumably, Campion is normally a bit of an arse, as he’s acting like a normal human being here.

There’s an interesting twist to be played with this set-up, namely that the Campion that we’re reading about isn’t actually Campion. Unfortunately we don’t go there. Instead this reader spent most of the time wondering what the heck was going on, and not in a good way. When the voice of the book is just as confused as to what’s going on as the reader, it doesn’t exactly make a match made in heaven.

Allingham is always mentioned as one of the big four female crime writers of the Golden Age, alongside Christie, Marsh and Sayers. Gladys Mitchell never made the cut apparently. But this is nowhere near the quality of a Christie. In fact (and those who’ve read my Marsh reviews will appreciate the weight of this) this is nowhere near the quality of a Marsh novel either.

It’s a shame to say this, but I really didn’t think much of this book at all. Possibly due to it being a stupid pick for the first Allingham, but it’s not really a mystery – the identity of the villain would have been more of a surprise if it had been anyone different and the central theme of the plan? Ditto. So a massive disappointment and not recommended as an introduction to Allingham.

Can anyone recommend a better Campion to give Allingham a second chance?

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23 comments

  1. First off, his name is Albert, not Arthur. And I agree it was perhaps not the best choice for your first Allingham, but I think it’s still a fascinating read. It was discovered after the war that the Germans actually were thinking about attempting what Campion worked to prevent in this book. You might try an earlier book, like Police at the Funeral, or Death of a Ghost. Those are excellent ones and more in the tradition of detective stories. The earliest books in the series are more in the vein of adventure/thriller stories. Lots of fun, but not detectives stories per se. I feel I should disclose that Allingham is my favorite of all the Golden Age writers.

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  2. Personally, I’d recommend Flowers for the Judge as my own favorite Allingham – much more in the line of a detective story with a puzzle plot, plus an impossible disappearance to start it off and – in my opinion – one of the best closing lines in any Allingham book (or just about any book, come to think of it). Also, the expanded novella, “The Case of the Late Pig” is fun, well-written, and – because of its length – one you might consider as a second try at Allingham.

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  3. Like you I came to the books via the TV show, which i liked a lot (Davison was perfect casting in my view). So sorry you didn’t like this one more though, as I rather liked it, but then I’m a big fan in general. Campion is a bit like the Scarlet Pimpernel – masquerading as a silly ass type but tough and resourceful when he needs to be. As a result though Allingham’s Campion books come in two flavours and in light and darker shades. There are traditional mysteries (DEATH OF A GHOST, FLOWERS FOR THE JUDGE, DANCERS IN MOURNING) in a more serious mode as well as lighter ones (CASE OF THE LATE PIG); and then there are thrillers like TRAITOR’S PURSE – some are light adventure stories involving treasure hunts (SWEET FREEDOM and LOOK TO THE LADY) some much darker, like her masterpiece THE TIGER IN THE SMOKE.. She was much better than marsh in my view – try GHOST and then maybe TIGER, I really hope these prove more enjoyable. They are worth reading in order if you can because he got older as the series went on, got married, had kids and so on.

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  4. Aww, this is one of my favourites – you must have read it wrong 😉

    I agree with the others – go earlier for the puzzles, earlier still for the gung-ho adventures, and postwar for the thrillers. Personally, I prefer the later books.

    Like Sergio, it was the TV show which got me interested (in Campion, and in classic crime in general), but I’d caution against viewing it again – it seems very slow now.

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  5. People always rave about Tiger in the Smoke, but for me it’s Hide My Eyes and The China Governess. Very dark, and a Dickensian feel for London. That’s /very/ dark.

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  6. Having some idea of your tastes, I would recommend Flowers For The Judge. If you do not like that, it is very doubtful you’ll like any of the others.

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  7. I really like this book, but it is probably not the best place to start with Allingham. “Tiger in the Smoke” is my favourite, but it is also more a thriller than a mystery since the murderer is known from very early, and the book is about the pursuit of the criminal. “Police at the Funeral”, or “Flowers for the Judge” are more conventional mysteries and may be better places to start.

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  8. Allingham is my favorite of all the Crime Queens, and I remember enjoying Traitor’s Purse a great deal when I read it some decades ago. I’ve recently resolved to revisit Allingham, and will see when I get to it if the novel still holds up well for me.

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  9. The Crime at Black Dudley was the first one I read. It’s rather fun and an interesting introduction to Albert Campion who was not meant to be a main character at that stage. I do like Traitor’s Purse and Sweet Danger, which are romps, would recommend The Fashion in Shrouds and Tiger in the Smoke and in fact all the Campions including Cargo of Eagles but not beyond. Albert has such a long career and grows up as well as older, something that adds to the interest.

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