Like many great mystery writers, Ms. Allingham began writing not because the muse was whispering into her shell-like ear, but because she had to pay the rent. And in the late 1920s, when she began publishing, the fashion in mysteries was for tales of “gentlemen-sleuths,” dinner-jackets at the ready, solving crimes as a form of sport. Albert Campion, who made his debut in 1929, would become one of the most beloved, quip-happiest, and longest-lived of the group: Ms. Allingham kept him detecting – and quipping – for nearly the next 40 years.
But what’s so fascinating about her career is the extent to which it spans a seemingly unspanable canyon between Mr. Campion’s essentially light-hearted adventures and the much darker, psychological suspense to which Ms. Allingham increasingly turned after World War II, by which point it had become a lot more difficult to view death as any kind of game. Of these novels, by far the best known is Tiger in the Smoke, which is widely regarded as one of the best mysteries of the 20th century. But for my money, Hide My Eyes – a chilling yarn about a psychopath and the aging woman who loves him – is as good and maybe even better. There’s a scene toward the end, where the two confront each other, all pretenses stripped away…it will make your heart hurt, no matter how many times you read it, and I’ve read it more than once.
Mr. Campion barely gets a mention in the book, but fond though I am of the ever-quipping Albert, that scene more than makes up for his absence. And although this is nominally the 16th novel in the Campion series, you don’t need to have read the earlier books to enjoy it; just bring a love of language and a soul.
Fans of the witty Mr. Campion have both the excellent BBC series from the 1980s (“Campion,” available on DVD) and a gorgeous plenty of books to turn to – not only Mr. Campion’s many adventures but also the mysteries, certainly, of Dorothy L. Sayers, Edmund Crispin, and Elizabeth Daly, whose gentlemen-sleuths are beyond reproach. But if Hide My Eyes has intrigued you, you might well want to turn to Patricia Highsmith; The Talented Mr. Ripley came out just three years prior, and the two books are clearly cut from the same chilly psychological cloth. If the setting in post-war London has caught your attention, “The Ladykillers” (starring the ever-fabulous Alec Guinness, and available on DVD) will both give you both a sharp sense of what it looked like and a giggle besides. And if you can’t stop thinking about that deceptively charming, deadly young man (and wondering if perhaps you know anybody like him), pick up a copy of Jon Ronson’s non-fiction The Psychopath Test, which is funny and unnverving in pretty much equal measure.