“There are, fortunately, very few people who can say that they have actually attended a murder. The assassination of another by any person of reasonable caution must, in a civilized world, tend to be a private affair.”
After his death, the great painter John Lafcadio left behind a messy personal life and twelve unseen paintings. Each year, one of these works is unveiled in his old studio to cement his posthumous reputation.
This year, however, the mood is far from festive. His granddaughter Linda’s fiancé, Thomas Dacre, has just returned from Italy with a wife. Lafcadio’s widow Belle must deal with the squabbles of her husband’s former models and hangers-on. Sensing that a volatile situation is developing, she turns to her friend Albert Campion, who must scour London’s art world for a connoisseur of murder.
Death of a Ghost is a captivating story, more of a howdunnit than a whodunnit. Campion spots the killer fairly quickly and spends much of the book trying to prove his theory, though it isn’t clear until the very end whether his guess is correct. To do so, he must steep himself in the eccentric Lafcadio household in the heart of London’s Little Venice, rubbing elbows with a delightful assortment of artists, models, dealers, and rogues.
For some members of that household, the annual Sunday Showing of Lafcadio’s new work is a mild annoyance, but for others, it’s the highlight of their year. “We come alive on one evening of the year,” Belle says, “retast[ing] our former glory.” The warmhearted Belle, who understands a great deal and has the wisdom to keep it to herself, treasures the past but lives in the present. Likewise, her granddaughter Linda is more focused on her own artistic ambitions than on a grandfather she is too young to remember. Their housekeeper Lisa, once Lafcadio’s most famous model, resents being hauled out of the kitchen to recreate decades-old poses. Tommy Dacre is still trying to figure out his place in Linda’s life now that he’s switched to more commercial art and married his model, Rosa-Rosa. Campion can’t help wondering whether Dacre regrets his choice.
Rosa-Rosa had another of the perfect model’s peculiarities; she was unbelievably stupid. She had been trained not to think, lest her roving fancy should destroy the expression she was holding. For the best part of her life, therefore, her mind remained a complete blank.
Others thrive on the energy of the showings, however. In her ordinary life, Donna Beatrice is nothing more than an affected old woman babbling about auras to anyone she can corner. One day a year, however, the world remembers that she was once John Lafcadio’s “inspiration,” beautiful and brilliant. For the hopelessly untalented Tennyson Potter, who lives in the studio with his bustling wife Claire, this show is his only chance of exhibiting his work. (Potter depresses everyone. “There’s only one thing worse than an artist who can’t draw and who thinks he can, and that’s one who can’t draw and knows he can’t. No one gets anything out of it then.”) Then there’s art dealer and bon vivant Max Fustian, who owes his career to his association with Lafcadio.
His first book about Johnnie…was called The Art of John Lafcadio, “by one who knew him.” His eighth book on Johnnie came out yesterday. It’s called Max Fustian Looks at Art—”a critical survey of the works of John Lafcadio by Europe’s foremost critic.”
All of these people have their own reasons for attending the Lafacadio show that Sunday. One of them will not survive it.
Though Campion comes to believe there is little mystery about who committed the crime, proving why and how the murder took place is much more complicated. Furthermore Campion admits to wanting to protect certain suspects, warning Inspector Stanislaus Oates, “I have no conscience in these matters at all. Conscience doesn’t come into it. If…I thought any good purpose could be served by throwing dust in your eyes, I should do so if I could.” This bias makes it uncertain just how objective Campion is capable of being. “Only the cold facts” are against his suspect, but in a court of law, cold facts are all that matter.
“What are you going to do? Drop it?”
“Good Lord, no!” The inspector looked shocked. “You ought to know more about police procedure than that. We shall go on snuffling about like an old terrier on a stale scent. We shall write each other coldly disapproving letters from department to department. We shall tell each other the facts in confidence and go on worrying round a little less week by week. Then something else will turn up and we shall all be very busy and this will get crowded out.”
Campion is convinced that he is involved in a cat-and-mouse game with a brazen killer. “For the first time in his life, he felt unequal to the situation and afraid of giving himself away.” In the process, he must grapple with two ghosts. One is the memory of the “flamboyant swashbuckling” John Lafacadio, which still casts a spell over those who knew him (and it is a testament to Margery Allingham’s skill that, from the start, Lafcadio’s personality is just as vivid as those of the living characters). The other is a murder victim who has not only been killed, but is being systematically erased after death. Someone is stealing every scrap of evidence the victim ever existed, right down to their dirty laundry.
This works because the characters and their relationships are so believable. The case is not solved by timetables or physical evidence, but Campion’s growing understanding of the suspects’ personalities. It is the human moments that are most memorable, like Claire Potter’s quiet devastation as she realizes, over the course of one agonizingly long day, how much she has sacrificed for a genius that her husband never actually possessed.
Death of a Ghost is a marvelously entertaining battle of wits that culminates in a nerve-wracking climax as Campion becomes more and more desperate to prove his suspect’s guilt. Campion’s vulnerability here is genuinely shocking. The details of the mystery, while complex to actually solve, are not very difficult to guess. In every other respect, however, Death of a Ghost exemplifies Margery Allingham’s gift for creating stylish mysteries rooted in people and places that feel utterly real.
Overall, I highly recommend Death of a Ghost. It’s my favourite Allingham to date, combining clever plotting with Allingham’s usual strengths.
I needn’t have worried about liking this book. I liked the story and the way Allingham tells it.
It’s a beautifully written book; Allingham makes readers care about her characters – even the truly horrifying villain of the piece. I recommend Death of a Ghost to you very highly.
Altogether, a really fine example of Allingham’s work, with her great sense of place and excellent characters.
This is something different, even though it’s a lot closer to a traditional whodunit than Traitor’s Purse. The pacing is certainly not what I expected and a lot more emphasis is placed on finding evidence to prove the culprit’s guilt than Christie ever focused on. It’s difficult to say much more about the plot without spoiling things, but this is an entertaining tale.
Death of a Ghost is available in paperback and ebook from Agora Books.