blaugust #17: thrill me.

“The thriller proper is a work of art as delicate and precise as a sonnet.” – Margery Allingham

A couple of weeks ago, The Guardian published a review of Traitor’s Purse by Margery Allingham, in anticipation of a special edition that Folio Society will release next month. I am, as previously blabbed, a huge fan of mysteries – particularly the old school British classics. Margery Allingham is definitely in that category, and I’ve read several of her Campion stories. Albert Campion is the traditional old school detective hero: a brilliant peer who prefers the life of a gumshoe to the social grind. I am oversimplifying, because that makes him sound insufferable and he’s not – he’s startling and fresh and likable. Allingham is a wonderful storyteller, but she’s also a magnificent writer – sharp and clear, short and precise, funny and oh, when you aren’t really ready for it from a clever, witty thriller, so human and devastating. The Guardian piece had some great background on her, as well.

I’d never read Traitor’s Purse, so on the strength of this very loving review, I got a copy from the library. I finished it last night. I won’t rehash the review here, because it’s already been done perfectly, but the book was everything it promised. A perfect thriller that manages to be both a departure from the other Campion stories, and also utterly canonical. The descriptions of place are drawn with a very fine hand, using wonderful words in just not quite expected ways:

“A broad road, still paved and flanked with squat houses, rises slowly to the Corn Exchange and the Nag’s Head Inn. The hostelry, fourth oldest in the country, is three storeys high and its centre gable, gallant but drunken, leans appreciably westward, lending the whole structure a note of ancient and irresponsible festivity both laughable and endearing.”

Ancient and irresponsible festivity. That’s the most vivid description I’ve ever read of an old and lilting English building.

“He had no idea where he was and the velvet dark was warm and faintly anaesthetic…Another door brought them to a flight of wooden stairs and a surprising change of atmosphere. It was still warm, but the air now smelt of paper and floor-polish and the gentle, exciting odour of old wood.”

Who gets to put the words gentle and exciting together to make the exactly right description of a smell? Margery Allingham, that’s who. Go thee to the library for some books.

(This is day 17 of the Blaugust initiative; I’m a survivor!)

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