[For the 2003 Edgar awards program book]
I have a confession to make.
The first two books I ever checked out of the Seldovia Public Library were The Hidden Staircase and The Clue in the Old Stagecoach. Yes, I loved them, and yes, they returned me hotfoot to the library, where, yes, I went through the rest of the Nancy Drews on the shelf in about a month.
But after that? I didn't read mysteries much. My mother loved them, especially those of British authors, including Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Agatha Christie. Perhaps, in the perverse way of children, because she did, I didn't. She didn’t give up, though. It took her twenty-one years of patient persistence to get me to read Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time.
The twelfth in Martin Limón’s Sueño and Bascom series, featuring two CID agents in South Korea in the early 80s, and I think his best by far. Three GI’s have gone missing, all of whom have abused Korean women, and Command sends Sueño and Bascom to find them. It’s a solid whodunnit, a window into…
The great thing about going to book conferences is that there you are, penned up with a bunch of other people who all love books. This time it was the Poisoned Pen Con in Phoenix, a small, intimate gathering with single-track paneling where you have time to visit with other readers and hobnob with your favorite authors.
One of my favorite authors is Francine Matthews (aka Stephanie Barron) and she and I and Barbara Peters were talking about our favorite Golden Age mysteries. They were as one in declaring The Tiger in the Smoke to be one of their favorites.
I'd read a couple of the Albert Campion novels way back when, didn't like them much and moved on, but if Francine and Barbara say it it must be so, I picked up a copy.
London, 1950. Beautiful couturier Meg Elginbrodde lost her husband in World War II and after mourning him for five years has become engaged to Geoffrey Levett. Unfortunately, as soon as they announce their wedding photos of her previously deceased husband begin appearing in the society journals, and she calls in Campion for help.
There is some lovely description here, especially of the oppressive London fog, "a saffron blanket soaked in ice-water" and "[the fog] oozed in ungenially, to smear sooty fingers over the two elegant young people who sat inside" and "greasy drapery." Yeesh.
But what I love most about this book is the character descriptions. Take Campion's associate, Divisional Detective Chief Inspector Charles Luke:
Charlie Luke in his spiv civilians looked at best like a heavyweight champion in training...His pile-driver personality...It made him an alarming enemy for someone.
When he is detailing a subordinate to accompany an unwilling Canon Avril, Luke says, "He's my senior assistant, a quiet, discreet sort of man," he added firmly, eying the sergeant with open menace." You'd develop quiet discretion, too, if Luke looked at you that way.
Of Canon Avril, Meg's father, Allingham writes:
He believed in miracles and frequently observed them, and nothing astonished him. His imagination was as wild as a small boy's and his faith ultimate. In ordinary life he was, quite frankly, hardly safe out.
(As is made manifestly obvious when he nearly gets his daughter killed, for which Allingham never brings him to judgement, the only thing that irritates me here.)
There are lots of fun throwaway lines and phrases everywhere. Of one of the minor characters Allingham writes, "Her voice was gentle, placatory, and never-ending." At one point Levett says, "Values are so relative...Hitler wanted the modern world. Well, I mean to say, Campion, look at the modern world!"
You must understand, whoever you are, that in those days Rome, mistress of half the world, was a place as savage as a village of Nile pygmies.
Thus providing employment for our narrator, one Decius Caecilius Metellus, young commander of what passes for local law enforcement in his district of the city of the seven hills, circa 70BC. As John Maddox Roberts’ The King’s Gambit begins, someone is committing arson and garroting manumitted gladiators and rich freedman in Rome. In a plot that moves from simple murder to outright treason and threatens his own life, Decius’ investigation takes him into a Senator’s sister’s bed, to a brushing acquaintance with pirates (those same pirates who betrayed Spartacus, and here we find out why) all the way up to the Senate, including its two Consuls, Marcus Licinius Crassus and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus.
Yes, that Crassus and that Pompey. One of the most enjoyable things about this series (which now numbers thirteen) is the cameo appearances by characters right out of the history books, like Gaius Julius Caesar (yes, that Caesar), as in
The new calendar was one of Caesar’s better ideas. (At least, he called it his calendar. It was Cleopatra’s court astronomer, Sosigenes, who actually created it, and in truth it was Caesar’s own neglect of his duties when he was Pontifex Maximus that got the old calendar into such dreadful shape in the first place. That’s something you won’t find in the histories written later by his lackeys.)
Ouch. But Decius gives the devil his due, too, as here
Hortalus gave very florid speeches, in what was known as the Asiatic style. He wrote the same way...Such writing reads very strangely now, since Caesar’s bald and unornamented yet elegant style revolutionized Latin prose. Between them, Caesar’s books and Cicero’s speeches utterly changed the language as it was taught in my youth.
The period detail is great, too, as when Decius goes to Ostia to interview a witness
From each shop front and storehouse came the fragrances of the whole Mediterranean world. Incense and spices were stored here, and rare, fragrant woods. The odors of fresh-sawn cedar from the Levant and pulverized pepper from even farther east mingled with those of frankincense from Egypt and oranges from Spain. It smelled like Empire.
Decius is an engaging character, not the ambitious social climber you’d expect from a young Roman on his way up, but a good man whose motivation to solve these crimes, as he confesses to his vestal virgin aunt, comes from not wanting to see innocent slaves crucified in lieu of the actual murderer.
Yet another true detail of soon to be imperial Rome that will make you glad you’re enjoying this story in a comfortable chair in your living room two thousand years later, and not living through it yourself.