Margery Allingham’s Sweet Danger was the novel under discussion at my latest mystery book club meeting; once again it was a great discussion that went on for nearly four hours. We talked a lot about the details of the novel, of course, but also about the mystery genre itself, and we made comparisons between Sweet Danger and the club’s previous novel, Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key. On the surface these two novels couldn’t be more different — one is light and comic and the other is darkly violent without a ray of hope in it anywhere — but they do have some similarities, including main characters who are appealing largely because of the way we learn to trust them as the novel progresses, but who remain mysteries themselves, never described in detail and never given much of an inner life.
I’m glad we’re focusing on one genre, as it makes this kind of comparison possible, and it means that each time we meet we’re building common ground that will make future discussions that much richer. It feels a bit like a really good graduate class with a group of smart, enthusiastic people who have a lot to say. Except, of course, that we don’t have a professor, and we don’t have to write a course paper or give a presentation, and the topic is more fun than grad class topics usually are, and the reading load is lighter. And no one is showing off by dropping names of obscure theorists, or obnoxiously dominating the conversation in order to impress anybody, or using big words just to sound smart. Okay, it’s not like a grad class at all. Forget that.
Anyway, the group’s response to the book was mixed. Some people hated it and could barely finish it, others loved it, and others were somewhere in the middle. Those who didn’t like it complained about its lack of realism and its lack of depth — it didn’t seem to have any larger purpose and didn’t offer much entertainment to make up for that lack.
I was one of the ones who loved it, however. It took me a while to get in the spirit of the book — I wasn’t expecting its plot to be so complex and its tone to be so light and at times silly — but once I began to get a sense that this is what it would be like, I relaxed a bit and decided to enjoy the ride. Sometimes I resist when a book does something I don’t expect, but I like to try to take it on its own terms if I can and enjoy it for what it is, so with this book I began to appreciate the humor and the eccentricity of the characters and to appreciate the main character, Albert Campion, a man who is constantly described as “vague and foolish-looking” or as having an expression “vacant almost the point of imbecility” and yet who never fails to figure everything out. He doesn’t mind looking foolish either, at one point in the novel dressing up in women’s clothing for a purpose I can’t remember now but with hilarious results. The narrator describes him this way:
that was the beauty of Campion; one never knew where he was going to turn up next — at the third Levee or swinging from a chandelier …
I also loved the other main character Amanda (Emily has praised her highly too), an amazingly smart, talented, resourceful, and funny 17-year-old girl who single-handedly runs a mill to keep her family going. She’s easily a match for Campion, and it’s a delight to watch them work together to solve the mystery. I particularly liked her physical energy; as the narrator says, “Mr. Campion was fast learning that association with Amanda always entailed strenuous physical exertion.” She is beautiful, but poverty and general carelessness mean that “her costume consisted of a white print dress with little green flowers on it, a species of curtaining sold at many village shops” — and this is her nice outfit.
I haven’t told you much about the story, and I don’t think I will, as it’s a very complicated one, but, briefly, it’s about a tiny country in Europe (although it’s not set there); a lost inheritance; an uncertain family tree; a crazy country doctor; a fabulously wealthy and powerful corporate villain; a mysterious inscription on a tree; a drum, a bell, and a crown; and a whole crowd of trouble-makers. How all these fit together you’ll have to read the book to find out.
I don’t know yet what our next book will be, but I’m looking forward to it already.