Mr Campion’s Coven

Written by Mike Ripley

Review written by Jake Kerridge

Jake Kerridge is the crime and thriller critic of the Daily Telegraph

Mr Campion’s Coven
Severn House
RRP: £20.99
Released: March 31 2021

Margery Allingham wrote 18 novels about the aristocratic sleuth Albert Campion, one of the first detectives in fiction (along with Dorothy L Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey) who aged and evolved as the years passed. One of the many reasons to regret Allingham’s premature death (in 1966) was that Mr Campion, too, was denied an old age. 

I always had the impression that he would have thoroughly enjoyed becoming an old buffer, and would perhaps have recaptured something of the devil-may-care spirit that characterised his early years before he matured into the more watchful, peripheral figure of Allingham’s later books. 

Happily, Mike Ripley takes much the same view, and in the series of Campion continuation novels he has published over the past few years (beginning in 2014 with Mr Campion’s Farewell) he presents us with a superannuated Campion who has recovered some of his youthful skittishness and zest for adventure. 

In Mr Campion’s Coven - the eighth in Ripley’s series, and well up to the high standard of its predecessors - the 71-year-old Campion, ostensibly retired, still cannot resist the lure of a mystery. “You simply have to poke your nose in, almost certainly where it is not wanted”, observes his wife, Lady Amanda. To which Mr Campion replies: “But there would be absolutely no fun poking the old hooter somewhere it was wanted, would there?”

The bulk of the book is set in 1971. In addition to Lady Amanda, old friends familiar from Allingham’s books include the Campions’ son Rupert, now grown up and pursuing an acting career along with his toothsome wife Perdita; the exuberant CID officer Charlie Luke; and Campion’s insubordinate factotum, the retired cat burglar Lugg (“prone to mangle but never mince his words”, says his employer). 

There’s an authentically Allingham-esque offbeat touch to Campion’s initial assignment. Eminent actress Dame Jocasta Upcott (think a cross between Edith Evans and Tallulah Bankhead) wants Campion to find her missing poodle, Robespierre. The dog was being transported home from France on Dame Jocasta’s private yacht, and went AWOL after the yacht ended up stuck on a mudbank off the Essex coast and the drunken captain stumbled into the mud and drowned.

The dog-hunt leads Campion to uncover sinister goings-on at the nearby village of Wicken-juxta-Mare, aided by a young American scholar who wants to know why so many of the villagers’ ancestors returned there en masse after emigrating to North America in the 1690s.

Might it not have been a coincidence that they beat a hasty retreat from Massachusetts at the time of the Salem witch trials? It soon transpires that some of their present-day descendants certainly have an interest in witchcraft. But Campion also finds that the villagers of Wicken are capable of straightforward murder as well as black magic. 

Like Allingham at her best, Ripley combines high farce with a bracingly chilling sense of the eldritch. The landscape - sorry, “mudscape”- around Wicken - “stuck between salt marshes and mudbanks which stretch out to the horizon …  Just the place they would film Dr Who if they wanted to show a desolate planet” - is beautifully evoked. Wicken itself is the great tradition of Allingham’s English villages, populated by people who are either engagingly eccentric or creepy as hell - or a bit of both. 

There are some fine comic cameos, such as the dog-loving theatrical agent who consents to remove his toupee to let pooches lick his head all over. And indeed, some of the book’s most memorable characters are canines, including one of Mr Campion’s new sidekicks, Constable Siegfried of the Essex police - a German Shepherd. 

It all makes for a blissfully entertaining read. It’s not quite like reading one of Jill Paton Walsh’s brilliant recreations of the manner and style of Dorothy Sayers in her Wimsey continuations - Ripley is not trying to give us ersatz Allingham, and does things his own way (notably with a much higher gag rate than Allingham offered).

Ripley has said that he does not feel compelled to ape Allingham’s marvelous prose style in these books, on the grounds that neither did her widower Philip Youngman Carter, who wrote a number of Campion novels after her death. I would say, though, that Ripley’s books seem to do Mr Campion justice more than Youngman Carter’s did. 

Like at least one of the mutts in this story, Mr Campion has ended up with a new and sympathetic owner who understands how to make him thrive. Ripley’s series is just the job for making newcomers fall for Mr Campion’s charms; Allingham devotees, meanwhile, will feel like they’ve been reunited with a long-lost friend. 

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