Flowers for the Judge by Margery Allingham (1936)

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It is always interesting to re-read a once favourite novel. Many years ago I read Margery Allingham’s, ‘Flowers for The Judge’, and it is still an engaging classic mystery that has depths that went quite unnoticed the first time around. Campion remains just as charming as ever and is still one of the best detectives to emerge from the Golden Age. What surprised me this go round was that I returned to this book due to my interest in locked room mysteries, having falsely remembered this murder as a fairly good locked room plot. Unfortunately, years later, after reading many really good locked room titles, I was far less impressed. The primary plot is not even a true locked room story, with, quite literally, a huge hole in the sealed room, yet there is a great secondary plot line, which is actually a quite remarkable impossible crime, that I had completely failed to remember. This aspect took me by surprise and proved a true delight. We will return to that charming sub-plot a little later, but first let’s review the basic mystery and take a closer look at Allingham’s mystery writing.

Margery Allingham was one of the four Golden Age “mystery queens” along with Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and Ngaio Marsh. Campion first appeared in ‘The Crime at Black Dudley’ as a rather minor character, who was elevated out of obscurity at the suggestion of his American publishers, in ‘Mystery Mile’. He went on to star in 19 Allingham novels, a slough of short stories, and three more novels later published by her husband, Philip Youngman Carter, after her early death from breast cancer at age 62. After a bit of a rough start, Campion gradually evolves into one of the great detectives, the brilliant young man who lives in the shadows, yet is very well connected, with a background in wartime intelligence, and a near royal pedigree that is never fully defined. During his long career, Campion clearly becomes far more human, gaining wife, child, and various friends, while still employing his comic butler/valet Lugg, yet somehow never entirely loses this shadowy image. While I have a weak spot for Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey, Campion is probably my second favourite Golden Age sleuth. 

‘Flowers for the Judge’ begins with Campion paying a visit to the combined residences and offices of the Barnabas clan, who run the The Sign of The Golden Quiver publishing house. It is a Sunday evening gathering held by Gina Brande in her flat. The topic of discussion is the sudden disappearance of Paul Brande, her husband, who has not been home for three days. Campion, as a friend of the family, has been called in to offer his analysis of this troubling situation. At first he does not take Brande’s absence too seriously, as this is not the first time Paul has gone astray for days at a time, but an important moment occurs, shortly after Campion’s arrival, when Mike Wedgwood, Paul’s younger cousin, who is clearly enamoured with Gina, goes to the company strong room to fetch some papers for the senior partner, John Widdowson, and returns looking shaken, but says nothing.

The next morning, Paul’s body is discovered sprawled in plain view near the front of the vault, where it would have been impossible for Mike to have missed. A doctor is called, but it is clear that Paul has been dead for several days, and a decision is made to move the body upstairs, before the arrival of the police. Mike is sent to warn Mrs Brande, while Campion quietly surveys the scene, finding a recently broken ventilator at the rear of the room, leading to a garage, and the police soon find a length of rubber pipe stained with soot, in a nearby storage area. With this evidence, the inquest quickly determines that Paul was killed by carbon monoxide inhalation, the pipe having been used to connect the exhaust of Mike’s car to the ventilator, and a neighbour testifies she heard a car running on the night Paul disappeared, from six to nine. Mike can only respond that he was out walking the streets until eight, but admits to running his car in that garage for a few minutes around nine. Gina’s housekeeper then adds to the problem, in an ill advised attempt to defend her employers’s relationship with the younger cousin, leading to Mike being immediately arrested for the murder.

Campion begins a quiet investigation, and befriends Ritchie, another odd and rather awkward cousin – who helps him interview Miss Netley, Paul’s secretary, who is hiding a few important secrets. He gradually gathers various pieces of useful information, and learns of a valuable unpublished manuscript of a play by William Congreve, owned by the firm and regarded as a major financial asset. Paul had hoped to display this document, and crossed John in the process, but it is only after an adventurous late night visit to the strong room, on the eve of the trial, that these pieces begin to fall in place – eventually leading to a dramatic conclusion in the Old Bailey.

This central plot is one of the better classic mysteries of the Golden Age, not exactly a great whodunnit, due to the extremely limited cast of possible suspects, but still a solid plot that leaves Campion with a tough nut to crack. Campion notes, while talking to Gina: “There’s been so little to go upon. Usually in these things you can get your teeth in somewhere and worry the whole thing out, but in this business there hasn’t been a griping place.” Yet, in the end, each tiny shard of evidence Allingham has fed us, gradually fits into the case, until Campion reaches a solution that he can hardly credit, an error that nearly costs him his life.

Then there is that other impossible sub-plot, which makes this such an engaging locked room tale. It seems, from the beginning, that going missing is a bit of a Barnabas tradition. This part of the story dates back to 1911, 25 years before Paul goes astray, with the odd disappearance of yet another cousin, Thomas Barnabas, brother of the odd Ritchie. Thomas was last seen walking down the street near a high wall, with no entrance, on his way to work in broad daylight. A news vendor and a police sergeant were both witnesses, when he suddenly and quite impossibly disappeared into thin air, never to be heard of again. After a brief investigation, that mystery had disappeared from the public’s mind, and the remaining cousins had settled down to continue the family business. The Case of Thomas Barnabas was eventually relegated to that chapter of London folklore where a man steps out of his house and simply disappears into the twilight zone, but Campion soon comes to believe that this may not be an isolated incident. It is a delightful short impossible crime story, with a very well crafted solution, which hangs over the central mystery, providing a spooky shadow of doubt.

Allingham, by this period, was clearly challenging Sayers as the latest “literary” (whatever that word may mean) mystery author, provided your taste in literature ran more to Dickens and Kafka than the classics imbibed by Sayers at Oxford. Perhaps even more to the point, I was fascinated by Allingham’s apparent integration of early existentialist philosophy. Much of this book is engaged with the struggle to be an individual amidst the absurdities and essential unfairness of modern society, which so devastatingly mocks Gina and Mike. The reader is drawn back, time and time again, to their constant struggle to be authentic, to freely create themselves, rather than allow themselves to be swept along by some nebulous social or biological current. All of Allingham’s characters, perhaps most clearly Ritchie, seem quite unable to escape the doomed example of Sisyphus, endlessly attempting to find meaning in an ultimately senseless world, where the absolute despair of existential angst and the strangling hold of dark ennui prevent them from reaching their full potential. The message Allingham delivers is really quite simple, the moment any person becomes too invested in any role, be it marriage, career, or social standing, the struggle turns hopeless – whether we are discussing Gina’s role as a wife, the cousins participation in the publishing house, or the simpler search to be ‘good men’ that we encounter in the dual struggles of Rigget and Lugg. In the final chapter, Allingham’s solution is also clearly stated: If life is a circus, isn’t it better to be an honest clown than waste your life in a game of false pretences? The source of her philosophical position is not so clear, Allingham may have been influenced by diverse sources, including Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, T. S. Eliot and many more, but she has almost gone a step past such thinking, and actually seems to be anticipating the later French existentialists like Sartre and Camus.

‘Flowers for the Judge’ is one of a mid-career series of Allingham books, that began with ‘Death of a Ghost’, that catapulted Allingham from a minor mystery talent to one of the Golden Age greats. Allingham did not start off as a great writer, her early work is less than inspiring, but she soon learned her craft to near perfection, employing incredible descriptive prose, strong character development, and a level of social engagement with the common people of her day, and their exaggerated middle class morality, that makes these books a fascinating literary achievement which far surpasses your run of the mill cosy mystery. Campion may start off as just another wealthy dabbler in crime, like so many heroes of this period, but he quickly grows into a very complex and engaging detective. This is also the period, as other reviewers have noted, including Nick at Mystery Mile, when Allingham started to abandon the formulaic country house whodunnit, in favour of a much grittier style, mainly set in London, which culminates with the famous serial killer case in ‘The Tiger in The Smoke’. Her understated social conscience is also constantly present during this period, with special attention paid to the role of women and the potential trap of marriage, as continuing themes that recur through various novels. She is not the overt early feminist we find in Sayers and Harriet Vane, but the generally thankless role of women is never far beneath the surface, nor are the potential horrors of a badly flawed judicial system, as so eloquently demonstrated by the grey haired Mike and the judge’s attempt to sweeten a nasty atmosphere with the titular flowers.

This point is closely tied to the “romantic” element in this novel. Quite surprisingly, to me, Patrick from “At the Scene of the Crime’ states: “The book is a very dramatic love story with the protagonists being Mike and Gina. Their love is put through a severe trial (almost literally) and the question is, will they feel the same about each other once everything is over with? Will it even matter? …At times, the detective element seems somewhat overshadowed by the romance elements.” This is definitely not how it felt to me, I am still not even sure that this relationship can be properly defined as a romance. Allingham presents us with two people, struggling to deal with the existential crisis of living in an uncaring world; two people caught “Clinging together on the hearthrug like a couple of children.”, but it is very hard to see this as romantic – tragic is likely a far better adjective. There is a very odd lack of sexual tension, or any joy of true love -definitely no floating about on clouds of bliss – instead, the normal responses of two lovers are replaced by a dark tortured entanglement founded in despair that is far deeper and starker than anything usually labelled as ‘love’.

By far the most engaging character in this novel is the rather odd and socially awkward Ritchie, with his flailing gestures, disconnected speech, and obvious embarrassment when caught with a “spangled black tulle frill” in his otherwise bare quarters. He is an almost perfect Chaplin style figure of modern man facing a bad assed world. Ritchie is the only one who is even close to honesty and authenticity, facing life with a strong dose of existential horror. This is caught so eloquently in Chapter 11, as the trial begins, when Ritchie stares at the Bruegelesque vision of the Old Bailey, “All terrible….All this. All these people. They’re all in prison. All miserable. All slaves. All got to work when they don’t want to, eat when they don’t want to, sleep when they don’t want to. Can’t drink until someone says they may. Can’t hide their faces, got to hide their bodies. No freedom anywhere. I hate it. Frightens me.” This is so clearly a bad case of existential gas, that it is hardly necessary to again reinforce this vision with the entrance of Mike, “Mike’s grey. Hair’s grey. Two men in delightful clothes arguing for his life. Like a game….rules….places to stand. Felt ill. Sick. Wanted to spew. Frightened, Campion.” This is not Christie’s or Marsh’s Art Deco England in decline, it is far too dark and troubling; speaking from the coal grimed street, not the manor. Sayers occasionally drew close to the dark side, but in the end she gave up the game, rather than fully face those monsters that hide just below the surface of every page where murder reigns! Allingham is speaking to the reader in the voice of Dickens and Dostoyevsky, rather than the airs of Jane Austen or The Brontes. 

In much the same vein, the character of Rigget, a man disgusted with himself and unable to maintain his self respect, once again returns us to the same existential dilemma, and finally leads Campion to anticipate Sartre: “It occurred to Mr Campion that what Mr Rigget really needed was some sort of reverse process of psycho-analysis. To know the truth about oneself, if it were both unpleasant and incurable, must be a variety of hell, he decided.” The mirror image of Rigget, a man who had started with all the advantages of life, yet turned out badly due to his basic nature, is Magersfontein Lugg, Campion’s still shady butler/valet, who is comically battling to overcome bad nurture and allow his potential for a gentler, more civilized nature to emerge. Mrs Austin, Gina’s maid, is another character worth noting, one we have all met at one time or another. Determined to do good, all Mrs Austin can manage is to make things worse, due to her superficial understanding of the social game. 

In the end, I find myself totally agreeing with Patrick from ‘At the Scene of the Crime’ when he so aptly notes: “I have gotten to admire Allingham very much on this blog. Her writing was among the most elegant in the Golden Age. For lack of a better word, it is almost poetic. Every word seems carefully planted and yet spontaneous. Everything sounds just right. She has this uncanny talent for characterisation, especially for “crazy” characters – the loonier they are, the more sympathetic and convincing they come out!”

I have gone on far too long, so how should we rate this classic Allingham story? As a straight mystery it is one of Allingham’ better stories, but not one of her true masterpieces, like ‘The Tiger in The Smoke’ or ‘Hide My Eyes’, so it clearly ranks a very solid four stars. As a locked room mystery, the secondary plot is completely charming and so well woven into the fabric of the novel, that it deserves a full five stars. Yet, unfortunately, it is such a small part of the overall story, that I must, in all fairness, stick with the four star rating.

‘Flowers for the Judge’ is a truly great classic mystery, with a bit of a locked room twist, that is well worth the read, whatever your mystery preference. Enjoy!


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