Take Two at Bedtime (1949) by Margery Allingham

Take Two at Bedtime by Margery Allingham

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“You don’t want the scandal, of course (I don’t blame you), nor do I. But neither of us can help it. This is murder.”

At first glance, Take Two at Bedtime seems like an odd swerve for Margery Allingham, the crime queen known for her detective stories featuring Albert Campion. This is one of two volumes collecting romantic suspense novellas she published in American magazines during the 1940s. Allingham was always a chameleon, however. Brought up in a household of penny-a-word writers, she was willing to write anything that might sell and frequently used the Campion series as a way to experiment with trendy subgenres, from wartime spy stories to the paranoid thrillers of the late 1960s. Dipping a toe into the waters of romantic suspense fits right into Allingham’s surprisingly varied career. The results are entertaining enough, if unlikely to win over anyone who is not already inclined toward this brand of suspense.

Wanted: Someone Innocent (5/10)

Gillian Brayton was brought up to be a lady, but she can’t afford it any longer. The twenty-year-old is struggling along as a milliner’s apprentice when she meets a former schoolmate, Rita Fayre. They were never friends at school—the glamorous, much older Rita barely knew Gillian was alive—but Rita now seems to believe they were dear companions. When she whisks Gillian off to her mansion with the promise of a new job for her old friend, it all seems like a dream come true.

Life in the Fayre house proves very strange, however. The servants are gloomy and Rita’s husband Julian, an injured veteran, won’t even speak to Gillian. This is difficult because her job has only one duty: to prepare and administer Julian’s nightly medication. Gillian can’t help wondering why she was ever brought to this house, where no one seems to want her. The answer is more terrifying than she could possibly imagine.

A naive young woman being swept off to an isolated mansion for mysterious reasons is a classic setup, and it works here as well. Gillian is, indeed, very innocent and trusting. Her gullibility would probably be too frustrating over the course of a full-length novel, but in this shorter work it’s easier to feel sympathy for someone so young and alone. Rita is a charming and heartless creature who runs merrily over everyone in her path, especially Gillian. Nor is Rita’s husband Julian any kind of match for her, though Gillian certainly finds him thrilling (albeit for highly specific reasons).

As I opened my lips, he put his hand over my mouth and I was quiet. He was hurting me unconsciously, and suddenly I knew that I liked it and that he, too, felt just as I did with the same reckless surge of pain.

There is a clever trick tied up with the mystery that would be excellent if it were actually part of the solution. Instead, it’s a red herring that actually renders the solution impossible, or at least very unlikely.

Last Act (6/10)

When actress Margot Robert returns from her latest tour, she has a great deal to think about. Not only has she been working to reestablish her late mother’s theater company, but she has come to realize that she cannot marry her adopted cousin Victor—not when she’s in love with her other adopted cousin, Denis.

Deadly Duo by Margery AllinghamLuckily, she is returning to a house that thrives on drama. Her foster grandmother, Mathilde Zoffany, is a world-famous actress who uses the world as her stage. That’s why no one takes it very seriously when Zoff claims Denis is trying to kill her…until she is found murdered.

Could the culprit indeed be Denis, who has been estranged from the family until recently? After all, Margot doesn’t really know him, and his time in the French Resistance taught him to kill. Could it be Victor, a charming idler who will lose a large chunk of his inheritance if Margot breaks off their engagement? Or even Zoff’s old admirer Sir Kit, who has been trying to get her to move out of his house for months? As far as Scotland Yard is concerned, it could even be Margot herself.

The best feature of Last Act is the highly theatrical atmosphere, a culture clash between dreary postwar England and the exuberance of belle-epoque France. Zoff unapologetically fills Sir Kit’s gracious Regency home with all of her most garish possessions, knocking down walls and screwing heavy brackets into the delicate plaster. It is a pitched battle between woman and house which, at the moment, has fallen into an temporary state of truce.

Into this prim haven Zoff had crammed her own more flamboyant treasures, and the effect was both disturbing and a mite exciting, as if Madame de Pompadour had come to tea with Jane Austen.

Unfortunately, the house is more individualistic than most of the characters. Zoff never comes to life as she should—Margot spends a lot of time describing Zoff’s complex personality, but she’s barely glimpsed in person. While Sir Kit is rather sweet, Victor and Denis are bland. (It’s one thing to get a thrill out of consorting with a possible murderer, as Gillian does in the previous novella, but Denis in particular is too dull to seem worth the risk.) As far as Margot goes, it’s a bit challenging to sympathize with a beautiful and successful actress who has two men fighting over her and is about to inherit one-third of the French Riviera. I wouldn’t mind a little trouble of that sort.

Ever since the first shock of the tragedy she had been living in a half-world in which only the very simple things were ordinary and in which the great events surrounding her swept her along with them without help. Now for a second all the dreadful lunacy of the situation confronted her intelligence. It was as though she had been climbing a precipice and suddenly looked down. She grasped the full danger, the full significance, of everything she had learnt.

Deadly Duo is highly readable even if it is not Margery Allingham’s best work. Wanted: Someone Innocent generates a sense of creeping dread strong enough to mostly overcome a slight plot and vacuous heroine. Last Act is a stronger mystery with a high level of drama that does not always transcend the artificiality of its theatrical atmosphere. The true power of theater comes from those moments when the audience is able to connect with a real human being across the footlights. Deadly Duo offers a few such moments, but they are all too far between.

Second Opinion


These aren’t, to emphasize, core pieces of Allingham’s work, but they’re highly entertaining and certainly worth reading once you’ve exhausted the standard canon or if you’d like to dip your toe before plunging into a full-length novel.


Take Two at Bedtime (also published as Deadly Duo) is available as an ebook from Agora Books.


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