Margery Allingham, one of the four Golden Age ‘Queens of Crime’, was best known for her Albert Campion detective series, but she also wrote several standalone crime novels. I have previously read and enjoyed The White Cottage Mystery, so had high hopes for this one, Black Plumes.
First published in 1940, Black Plumes is set almost entirely in the London home of the Ivory family and the art gallery they own in the building next door. The family matriarch is the elderly Mrs Gabrielle Ivory and the story is written from the perspective of her granddaughter, Frances. As the novel opens, Frances’ father, Meyrick, is on business abroad and has left his son-in-law Robert Madrigal (who is married to Frances’ half-sister Phillida) to run the gallery while he is away. In his absence, however, strange things have been happening: a broken vase, a slashed painting – and finally, an argument between Robert Madrigal and the artist David Field, after which Robert disappears.
A few weeks later, Robert’s dead body is discovered and suspicion quickly falls upon David – leaving Frances in a difficult situation, as David is the man she has just agreed to marry. She tells herself that he must be innocent, but how can she be sure?
As I’ve said, there is no Albert Campion to solve the mystery in this book, which could be a good or a bad thing depending on whether you’re a Campion fan. Instead, there’s Detective Inspector Bridie, an elderly Scotsman from Orkney who is brought in to investigate. However, we don’t really get to see any of his investigations and he doesn’t have a large part to play in the story. I didn’t solve the mystery myself – although I had narrowed it down to two suspects and one of them was correct – but since we see everything through Frances’ eyes rather than the detective’s, I think that made it more complicated.
There’s a touch of romance in the story too, particularly at the beginning where Frances and David agree to announce a fake engagement in order to prevent Frances having to marry someone else, but this storyline turned out not to be as much fun as it promised to be at first (Georgette Heyer does that sort of thing much better). It didn’t help that I found David so annoying; in fact, I didn’t like any of the characters much at all, although I enjoyed most of Gabrielle Ivory’s scenes and the contrast between her Victorian values and her granddaughter’s more modern ones.
After finishing this book, I looked at some other reviews and was confused when I saw everyone complaining about the use of a certain racist term to describe one of the suspects. It seems that this word has been edited out of the new edition I read and replaced with a less offensive term, which I think was a good idea in this case. The racist sentiment is still there, but it’s clear that it’s supposed to be the view of one of the characters rather than Allingham herself.
I think Black Plumes is worth reading if you like Allingham’s writing, but if it had been the first book I’d read by her, I’m not sure that I would have wanted to read more.