Monday, 26 December 2011

Tantalus key

“Sorry I can’t offer you a drink,” said Uncle William, blowing a little in his embarrassment. “The key of the tantalus has been removed again.” [Allingham, Police at the Funeral (1931), 95]

Police at the Funeral is certainly ingenious. It takes Allingham’s sort-of detective, the private gentleman Albert Campion, up to Cambridge. Campion is a strange figure; invented (apparently) as a parody of Lord Peter Whimsey; a boyish, bland, blond-haired nobody who is quite well-connected in polite society and amonbgst the police, hangs around murder-scenes innocuously and ends up solving them. Campion is a self-chosen pseudonym; his actual surname begins with a ‘K’ and his actual Christian name is Rudolf; the suggestion in Police at the Funeral is that he is the illegitimate offspring from an aristocratic Cambridge family; in other novels, apparently, there are suggestions he might be related to the Royal family. But as a deliberate move by Allingham, he lacks any defined role or purpose, and rather drifts through the books. Here’s the blurb:
Great Aunt Caroline rules the roost in an old Cambridge residence which is riddled with mystery, evil ... and terror! Uncle Andrew is dead, Aunt Julia is poisoned, Uncle William attacked ... and once again Albert Campion, that much-loved hero of detective fiction, comes to the rescue. With her customary skill Margery Allingham takes the reader through a delightful maze of intrigue as Albert Campion, bland, blue-eyed and deceptively vague, encounters the formidable Great Aunt Caroline and her bizarre household of horror.
The household is well drawn, actually: a bickering community of mostly elderly individuals, ruled by the implacable Victorian relict Great Aunt Caroline. The claustrophobia of this, and the pettiness of the grounds of dispute, are neatly-enough done. Uncle Andrew, whose death occasions the mystery, was a thoroughly unpleasant individual in life: a wastrel, gambler and domestic monster who delighted in tormenting his family members in petty but infuriating ways. He disappears coming back from Church one Sunday. Ten days later his corpse is discovered, shot through the head, tied hand and foot, in the Cam. Suspicion falls on his elderly, irascible cousin William, who hated Andrew during his life and was cordially hated in return. He was the last person to see Andrew alive. William is a drinker (something expressly forbidden by Great Aunt Caroline), and a man who suffers from improbable fugue-state interludes during which he doesn’t know where he is or what he’s doing; suspicion naturally falls upon him, and accordingly we would not be so callow as to believe that he is actually the murderer. There’s also the corpulent, elderly Aunt Julia; withered Aunt Catherine, and cousin George, who is living life as a tramp, but who comes round to the Cambridge house from time to time to blackmail Great Aunt Caroline for small sums of money. What hold does he have over his Great Aunt? Who killed Uncle Andrew? Campion thinks he knows, but has no proof. Other characters include the beautiful, feisty young Cousin Joyce—who asked Campion along, in effect for moral support—and her fiancé, a young Cambridge lawyer also related to the family called Marcus.

Campion investigates the murder and aids the police whilst claiming, mildly but insistently, to be doing neither (‘“fair dos,” said Mr Campion. “You know exactly how I stand in this matter. I’m not the clever amateur helping the important policeman. I’ve just been asked down for the murder. If it wasn’t for Joyce and Marcus and possibly Uncle William I think I should go home.”’ [138]. I consider it a shame Campion appears innocent of the correct use of the subjunctive). And, yes, bickersome old Uncle William grows on Campion, and to an extent on the reader as well. But the plot doesn’t dawdle. Uncle Andrew’s body has been floating in the Cam with a bullet in its forehead and ropes around its hands and feet for an improbably ten days—but almost as soon as it is discovered, Aunt Julia is killed by poison in her morning cup of tea (something she drank in secret, since tea is another thing interdicted by Great Aunt Julia: ‘tea-drinking in the early morning,’ she says, rather splendidly, ‘has always appeared to me as an indulgence for which there is nothing but spinelessness as an excuse’ [71]). Campion and Joyce investigate the old woman’s bed, and discover a secret stash of slimming powders inside her bedknob. She was drinking the morning tea as a way of ingesting these, something the murderer clearly knew. Then somebody stabs Uncle William in the hand one night, although he tries to cover the incident up with a unconvincing story about being scratched by a cat; he rinses the wound in a lot of iodine and is not further incommoded.

Then the family’s black-sheep, Old Uncle George, arrives drunk, claiming that he knows who the murderer is, that it’s a member of the family, and that he must be paid off or he’ll reveal their shame to the world. He is put to bed in a highly belligerent state of inebriation; and in the morning he is dead, poisoned with arsenic.

Now, Allingham provides us with a family tree, maps of the house, and lots of specific detail. I did not, however, guess the identity of the murderer, and most of the herrings she serves us turn out to be red. This, I suppose, is what we’re looking for in a novel like this. But unlike Edmund Wilson, I didn’t find the revelation of the murderer’s identity a let-down. In part because it is so laughably improbable, when judged by the standards of ‘realism’, as to remove itself from that realm of judgement altogether (nobody would try to nominate La Cantatrice Chauve for ‘Best Documentary’).

The family, in their large house, with their antique routines and habits, are the structuring principle of the novel—I mean, the principle of the novel as whodunit. Allingham gives us a pattern that we can see only when we reach the end; and that pattern is, precisely, family.

Family in Police at the Funeral are ancient; old people ruled by a grandmatriach even older, who bicker like little kids. (In one scene Campion stays for dinner, and wonder why everybody has their own sets of salt, pepper and sauces; he is told in effect that a while ago the old folk quarrelled like toddlers over these items, so Great Aunt Caroline decreed they should all have their own). It is a grotesque, claustrophobic world. Any of them could leave, of course; but Great Aunt Caroline controls the purse strings, which would mean they’d have to work for a living—out of the question, naturally. Though often played for laughs, or at least for smiles, there’s no avoiding the sense that it’s a sort of glimpse into hell.

One aspect of this is the novels’ extraordinarily calcified attitude to class and race. To say ‘it is of its time’ seems to me to let Allingham too easily off the hook. William’s body is discovered by an Indian student at the university, who is brought into the narrative for a chapter only to be made fun of: his funny way of speaking, and his inability to dress correctly. Likewise, George has been blackmailing his Great Aunt with a ghastly secret, which ghastly secret turns out to be that he is himself mixed-race (‘“George,” said Great-aunt Caroline, “was the son of my husband’s brother Joseph ... a despicable character and a disgrace to his family. This person was shipped off to the colonies many years ago. He returned with a certain amount of money and a wife. They lived at Newmarket, quite near us, you see. She was a peculiar-looking woman and of a very definite type, which we in those days chose to ignore. They had a child, a girl ... by some horrible machination of heredity the stain in the woman’s blood had come out.” She lowered her voice. “The child was a blackamoor. They left, of course, and the disgraceful business was hushed up. But to my own and my husband’s horror, although the first child died these criminal people had a second ... George bears our name and is always threatening to reveal his half-caste blood”’ [244]). It is Campion’s frank admiration for this horrible old woman (‘Campion looked at her admiringly. “I think you’re the cleverest woman I’ve ever met”, he said’ [245]) that is most shocking. Then again, there is the de-haut-en-bas attitude to class. George is painted as a thoroughly despicable character, an abusive drunken blackmailer, because he has fallen in with tramps and the low.

And this brings us to the part of the novel that astonished me the most. That he has rendered himself déclassé turns Uncle George into the novel’s homo sacer. In the most astonishing plot development, he is locked, drunk and raging, in one of the house’s upper rooms in which Campion strongly suspects there also to be a deliberately constructed murderous device. Campion is right, as detectives in this sort of novel almost always are; and in the morning Uncle George is dead, poisoned with a massive dose of arsenic. How? Campion explains:
There was a pipe rack on Andrew’s dressing table ... It contained five extremely filthy and blackened pipes and one very good new one, a temptation to any man, I don’t know if you have noticed, the way a man picks up a pipe and sucks it vigorously to make sure the stem is clear? It’s a sort of involuntary movement.’ [242]
Poor old Uncle George. Unpleasant though he was it’s hard to believe that he deserved to be sacrificed upon the altar of Campion’s theorising. Because, you see, our vague detective has got to the bottom of the mystery, the key slips into the Tantalus’s lock. Uncle Andrew wasn’t the first murder victim after all; he was a suicide. We were led to believe that the ropes binding his wrists had rotted in the river, but in fact his hands were free, he shot himself in the head on a footbridge in Grantchester, having rigged an elaborate device to get rid of the pistol, and tumbled into the water. His wickedness was sufficient, however, to want to punish his own family from beyond the grave: he had replaced the eleventh of Aunt Julia’s sachets of powder with poison; he rigs a poisoned blade in a hollow book in which Uncle William keeps a secret supply of booze (the old fellow is lucky not to have been killed) and set up the pipe rack. Death came not only from within the family, the product of decades of accumulated resentment over trivial intrafamilial squabbling—it also came from beyond the grave. Allingham’s novel draws itself into a series of knotted conceptual circles whereby, metaphorically speaking, ‘the family’ and ‘beyond the grave’ become, almost, the same thing.

The fact that this solution is so involuted, that Allingham portrays the family as a stagnant, closed circle from which and contained within which death operates, gives the book the superbly claustrophobic feel, despite its antic and sometimes strained touches of melodramatic gaiety. As Campion and Oates drive away from Cambridge at the end of the book, the Inspector looks forward to ‘a nice little job in Stepney’. ‘Seems like a breath of fresh air,’ he announces. I can only agree. But the sense, in Allingham, as life defined by death, and both existing in an intricate, closed pattern, says more than the surface shenanigans of her novel can convey.


Gareth Rees said...

I consider it a shame Campion appears innocent of the correct use of the subjunctive

It looks correct to me according to the "traditional rules" in the American Heritage guide to contemporary usage and style:

"According to traditional rules, the subjunctive is used to describe an occurrence that is presupposed to be contrary to fact: if I were ten years younger, if America were still a British Colony.... When the situation described by the if clause is not presupposed to be false, however, that clause must contain an indicative verb.... If it was [not were] raining.... if he was [not were] going to be late for dinner."

Adam Roberts Project said...

Hmm. I've always assumed that the subjunctive is for unfulfilled wish or condition, which surely applies here. Still. I could be wrong.

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