Sweet Danger

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.

11 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

11 responses to “Sweet Danger

  1. Your comparisons (or maybe not) to grad school made me laugh a lot, Dorothy, and I loved your review. I really wanted to read along with this book but it never happened. I do like Margery Allingham, however, although I think her books are inconsistent in quality, and Campion is one of those ‘blank’ detectives, a bit like Miss Marple in a way, who look featureless while their minds spin like well-oiled machines. The group sounds just fabulous and I wish I could be there!

  2. Like Litlove, I think your grad school bit here is just great. I won’t say, yet again, I wish I’d been there (oops. I just did), but it sounds as though you and I had very similar reactions to the book. It’s funny the fact that it was so unrealistic seemed to come up a lot. I didn’t think about that much while I was reading it. I might have, though, if I hadn’t, not-too-long ago, read the first collection of of Father Brown mysteries. Allingham pales in comparison to Chesterton when it comes to being unrealistic. However, isn’t being unrealistic a trait of the genre? I suppose Hammett was maybe, overall, more realistic than this one, but I don’t know many people who are beaten to a pulp, manage to survive without at least being maimed for life, and while in that state come up with a clever and successful means of escape.

  3. I’m an Allingham fan as well. Campion is, I think, kept deliberately blank in order that the focus is on the plot rather than the character. They were serialised over here with Peter Davison as Albert and I rather wish I hadn’t seen them. I prefer not being able to give a face to the name.

  4. I read somewhere that Allingham was doing a parody of Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey. I enjoyed watching some of the BBC’s television series after reading 3 of the books. The series stars Peter Davison (Tristan from All Creatures Great and Small and one of the many Dr. Who incarnations).

  5. Perhaps what grad school ought to be, or what we wished it would be? You are coming very close to making me want to take up reading mysteries, a genre I rarely read.

  6. I think this group sounds great. I’d love to find a local mystery group. I’ve never read Margery Allingham (though I’ve heard of her), so now I will have to look for her work as you’ve got me sufficiently intrigued! Is the setting contemporary? I think a lot of people write off mysteries as sort of fluffy (and they can be in some cases), but there’s really quite a lot to them, isn’t there!

  7. Litlove — oh, I’m glad it made you laugh! I’m interested in reading more Allingham at some point, although I’ll try to get some of her better books. I kind of liked the “blank” hero, although not everyone in my group did!

    Emily — you’re right — certain kinds of implausibility we’re more likely to accept than others, and The Glass Key certainly had its share of implausibilities. I don’t mind them, as long as the book as some kind of internal consistency to it.

    Ann — I can see why you wouldn’t want to see a serialization of the novels, but I kept thinking as I read what a fabulous movie the book would make!

    Jenclair — I think you’re right about the Wimsey parody — that idea came up a lot in the meeting and it makes sense, although I haven’t read enough Sayers to be able to make the case myself. I’ll have to read more of her!

    Stefanie — I have been on a mystery kick lately — they are very good for when the rest of your life is a little complicated! And yeah, I would have enjoyed grad school more if it could have been more like my book groups.

    Danielle — The book was published in 1933 and as far as I can tell was set in contemporary times. And yes, mysteries don’t have to be fluffy at all!

  8. I know in one of those recent 50 greatest mystery writers lists (or something like that) she’s listed as one not to be missed. I am looking forward to reading one of her books one of these days. Oh and how will you choose your next book? Is everyone offering suggestions?

  9. Lol, about the grad school comments! I didn’t get a chance to read this one, but I always love the Slaves discussions, too. And after reading all the reviews of this book, I’m going to have to put it on my list…

  10. Thanks for giving me this link again–I knew I had read this earlier this year. Now that I’ve read one Allingham and am working on another, your post is even more meaningful. The first book I read was the second Campion mystery and he is exactly as you describe him. The one I’m reading now, The Tiger in the Smoke, is less light and comedic and a bit darker–in that it is set in post-WWII London, and you still get the feeling that the war is not too long over and people are still feeling the effects of it. It’s also November, dank and foggy and Campion and a police detective are on the trail of a murderer. The first mystery I read was somewhat complex, but this one is even more so. I find that I need to reread passages and there are lots of characters to keep straight, but I am still really enjoying it. I want to go back now and read her mysteries in order I think–if I can find them in the stores…may have to place an Amazon order.

  11. Danielle — interesting that there are darker Campion novels out there; I hadn’t quite realized that. I think I’d like to read about post-WWII London. She’s definitely worth following up on!

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