There’s always a danger in returning to the things you liked as a child. I can’t remember whether I’ve read this specific Marjory Allingham before, but I have been rereading a selection of Golden Age mysteries to assist with paytesting Dale’s forthcoming Wicked Lies and Alibis; for a proper Golden Age Whodunit you just can’t go past the Four Queens. The Ellery Queens and van Dyne’s will always feel like also-rans to me. The Case of the Late Pig was a fascinating book, which I buzz-sawed through in a couple of hours. Fascinating as much for what’s obviously difficult about it as literature as much as for its content per se. From the start of the book it brought to mind Franco Moretti’s “Slaughterhouse of Literature”, and it helped me clarify in my own mind why Christie rather than the others has retained cultural currency in the century after her debut. For all that the writing is eminently readable, this novel is a virtual how-not-to write detective stories for the long haul; something that can’t be discussed without spoilers.
The basic plot of the story comes across very well – a villain has faked his own death before finding himself genuinely murdered in an idyllic country setting. The cast of suspects is the local gentry, who each offer a mutual alibi for the time of the death. Soon afterwards, a rogue emerges, trying to prise money out of the detective for the solution – but they try and blackmail the killer and are unceremoniously slaughtered. Our perspicuous detective ferrets out the truth, but without proof devises the stratagem of luring the killer into attempting to murder him, for proof-positive.
On the most basic level, the novel provides us with only one really plausible killer from the start – Dr Kingston is the only character with any specific or personal connection to the victim. This would usually be an obvious Red Herring ™ – hidden connections with other characters would be revealed or the apparent connection of our Prime Suspect would be inverted. Allingham then keeps him front-and-centre by having Campion constantly point out how unusually interested the doctor is in the investigation – again, the usual thing is to keep the minimum of attention on the real killer. Allingham tries to gesture towards Whippet as a second potential killer, by having him seen meeting with the second victim as well as knowing the first. Yet it is the merest of gestures, since she provides no plausible options for motive or opportunity. Since she is, basically, a fair-play author, the rules prevent her from revealing such in the dramatic denouement – the audience must know at the same point as the detective. This is such a fundamental mis-step within the genre tradition, already circa 20 years old at that point and already very ably summarised in essays by Freeman Croft and SS van Dyne, that it has to be a deliberate decision, part of a narrative strategy.
Campion is also a strangely passive detective. Most of the usual procedural elements are simply written off as carried out by unnamed and undistinguished “policemen” – such as questioning all of the possible suspects, staff, etc. In the Golden Age, these procedural elements are never genuinely procedural, they are used as scaffolding for revealing the hidden dramas of the cast of characters. By omitting these scenes virtually entirely, Allingham retains no platform for enlarging on the life of any of the suspects or the victim. The life of the village remains placid and one-dimensional, with only perfunctory characterisation or interactions. I found it extremely difficult to be interested in anyone as a character and since none had a personal dramatic or procedural arc, there was no distraction from the basic question of “Whodunit?”.
Campion has a kind of assistant, but narrates his own adventures. This is a strange deviation from the normal approach, where the assistant is present as a stand-in for the audience to showcase the Great Detective’s genius. Here, Lugg has little to do until he fills the role of damsel in distress late in the piece. Having the Great Detective himself act as narrator allows Allingham to point out the clues specifically as they arise over the course of the narrative – another really startling deviation from the norm. As far as I can discern, there is no fact essential for solving the case that isn’t pointed out by Campion at the time that he learns it. Traditionally, the narrator mustn’t be in possession of all the facts as such – that would mean lying to the audience by omission. If, say, Poirot, narrated his own stories then all those times he tells a baffled Hastings to be patient and that he, Poirot, will explain, would be impossible. By having her detective narrate and point out the facts as they arise and note them as important, she evades this problem.
What we are left with then, is perhaps a genuinely Fair Play scenario. The narrative is not bogged down with tangential exposition a la Sayers, nor with excessive family melodramas as Christie and Marsh were wont to do. The facts are present and ready for the Great Detective to solve the case- the Great Detective in this case being the reader themselves. Campion here plays the role of the idiot narrator who can report the facts without understanding them, in the tradition of Watson. All other literary ambitions have been sacrificed on the altar of this ambition – and the ambition is quite simple really, but points to a quite radically different perspective on the crime novel.
For Christie (et al), the Fair Play Mystery is a genuine challenge, and so the liberal sprinkling of Red Herrings and an abundance of suspects is crucial for making it sufficiently difficult. However, most readers even at the time of the Golden Age probably did not really interact with their works in that way. Christie has survived, I think, primarily as a cultural melodramatic repository. Golden Age stories often hinged on seemingly inconsequential details of ordinary life, and so they are filled with little details of domestic and social interactions. This unconscious expression of life is far more interesting than the strict puzzle of the crime, in my view anyway. These details necessarily connect them to the so-called “Country Village” novels (see Moretti’s Graphs Maps Trees for an absolutely fascinating account of the genre), and their formulaic elements such as ending with a marriage connect them to the “genre” of “comedy”. They are, in short, strongly connected to a larger literary field, in some senses bootlegging energy from a new structural paradigm (Whodunit) while not properly expressing that new paradigm as a central structural tenet.
It is only now, in some senses, that with the rise of purely procedural shows like CSI and novel series like Patricia Cornwell, that the Whodunit becomes almost the sole purpose of the structure of the novel. In Allingham we are seeing something quite different – she guides the reader through the key parts of the detection and without extraneous material. Yet it is clearly not procedural – it is not interested in the mechanics of investigation as such. What this really brings to mind is Columbo, which uses just exactly this structure but expressed fully. We know in an episode of Columbo who the guilty party is, and the fun comes from seeing the detective, well, exist in the detection-space. Campion is very much a pre-Columbo.