“There are, fortunately, very few people who can say that they have actually attended a murder.”
—Margery Allingham, Death of a Ghost [opening sentence]
Everyone agrees that John Lafcadio was a brilliant artist far ahead of his time. In fact, he himself was certain that his reputation would improve after his death, and so he came up with a unique scheme to exploit his popularity from the after-life. He left a dozen paintings with his agent, and instructed his widow Belle to wait for ten years. After that, she was to hold an annual celebration where one portrait would be unveiled. Lafcadio calculated that, if his archrival Tanqueray was still as popular 22 years after his death, then good luck to him. But as it turned out, he needn’t have worried: Tanqueray did not survive Lafcadio long, and his critical reputation has since undergone a steep decline while Lafcadio is celebrated as an artistic genius.
But Belle honours Lafcadio’s wish and this year marks the eighth year of the annual show. A colourful cast of characters is present: for instance, there’s Max Fustian, an art critic and dealer whose entire fame was built on his appreciations of Lafcadio’s work. There’s the great Lafcadio’s former mistress Donna Beatrice, who shared the artist with his wife in a ménage à trois. There’s his granddaughter, and his former top model (now reduced to the position of the household cook). Oh, and also Mr. Albert Campion among the guests, which is fortunate: for he is about to investigate the Death of a Ghost when one of the guests at the gathering, Tommy Dacre, is murdered with a pair of scissors…
It seems that, of the traditional “Crime Queens” (Christie, Sayers, Marsh, and Allingham) Allingham provokes the most extreme reactions. It seems that half the people who approach her books absolutely love them, and the other half despise them and wonder how anyone could enjoy them. I personally belong to the first camp: I really like Allingham, but not for her plotting ability (which is limited). No, I tend to read Allingham for her style, her characters, and her writing. Whatever her flaws as a plotter may be, her writing seems as spontaneous as the wise-cracks of Archie Goodwin, and can be just as memorable. She often produces descriptions that are absolutely delightful, and she is at her best when she creates characters that have gone Cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffs a long time ago.
That being said, Death of a Ghost took me aback. In my humble opinion, the plotting of Death of a Ghost is absolutely superb, lifting it into the masterpiece category. I enjoyed this plot more than that of Police at the Funeral because it’s an original piece of work, whereas Allingham lifted the solution for Police at the Funeral from an infamous Sherlock Holmes adventure. Death of a Ghost is a seemingly simple story: after the opening murder, the routine investigation leads nowhere. Soon after, Campion is hired to find out why someone is trying to eradicate Tommy Dacre from memory. All of his artwork has either been bought or stolen: there’s not a trace of it to be found anywhere. Someone burgled his home and stole all his personal effects. The only trace left of Tommy Dacre’s existence is others’ memories of him… Who could possibly have hated him so much to try and eliminate all proof of his existence?
Interestingly the novel isn’t really much of a whodunit. Campion knows that X is guilty by instinct, but the proof is nowhere to be found. So he tries to get some, but X is always one step ahead of him, beating him to every potential new clue and destroying it. The way X is finally apprehended is one of the most unique finales I’ve ever come across in detective fiction.
The resolution to the story is a bit too neat, you might say – if Allingham had instead allowed the killer to escape, perhaps Death of a Ghost would now be heralded as a classic of noir fiction. Instead, I barely heard a word about this novel before reading it for myself: it seems all the praise goes to Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke. But I liked it and I suspect most readers will. It’s a satisfying end to the proceedings. And of course, the very final lines are brilliant, adding a touch of melancholy to the whole tragedy.
I really enjoyed the characters as well. Belle is a wonderfully drawn character: a saint among mere mortals, with good cheer and seemingly endless buckets of patience, but the murder severely affects her and ages her almost overnight. There’s Donna Beatrice, a rather nasty character who hides behind a façade of dottiness, telling everyone about her crazy superstitions that involve the colour of people’s auras. And there’s the manipulative Rosa-Rosa, the wife of the victim whose main concern seems to be which party she should attend next. These and others are terrific creations and easily fuel your interest in the story.
Overall, I highly recommend Death of a Ghost. It’s my favourite Allingham to date, combining clever plotting with Allingham’s usual strengths. My copy of the book is a paperback entry in the “Dell Great Mystery Library”, which were selected by various judges (including Anthony Boucher). I think it deserves to be included in that canon. Death of a Ghost is, simply put, highly engrossing reading.