Mr Campion's Wings

Written by Mike Ripley

Review written by John Lawton

A former television producer, John Lawton is the best-selling author of historical thrillers, including his ‘Troy family’ series and spy fiction, the latest being Hammer to Fall.

Mr Campion's Wings
Severn House
RRP: £20.99
Released: October 8, 2021

Years ago, it seems, the author of this book (name withheld for legal reasons) introduced me to the Allingham Society as a suitable guest speaker. Marje (along with Sayers) had been my first venture into crime circa 1970. I accepted with alacrity and trepidation. I hadn’t read an Allingham in Lugg’s years let alone donkey’s. How would I react to Campion and Lugg after quite so long?

I will admit to some disappointment. Re-reading Tiger in the Smoke was bliss — but in saving The Fashion in Shrouds for my old age (due any day now) I realised I had made a mistake, and that perhaps Marje had been most effective for me in my youth. How then would I greet a book by Marje’s successor (is there another word for this?)  I understand the publishing motivation for continuing a series begun by someone since deceased — it still makes the world go ’round — but I’ve never felt tempted to read much in the ‘follow-on’ line. Yes, I read Horowitz’s Bond and Faulks’ and Boyd’s too … but even when a writer as fine as Reed Farrel Coleman writes follow-ups to my personal god (Robert B. Parker) my interest does not perk. 

So … the big question in reading Mr Campion’s Wings was ‘Is Ripley Up To It?’ And I am delighted to be able to tell you that not only is he up to it … he is better than some of the originals. There is more to the man than moustache, trousers and a pint — in case anyone was in doubt. 

[Ripley — leave the money in a plain brown envelope under the park bench.]

Are there rules of succession? Quite possibly. Can you update the heroes of classic crime? Dunno. But here’s me twopennorth — I wouldn’t do with James Bond what Jeffery Deaver did, updating him to the 21st century, and I’d be somewhat conflicted about what to do with Pussy Galore — apart from not naming her Pussy Galore in the first place. Horowitz had his solution. Pussy’s instant conversion to heterosexuality was risible even at the time Fleming wrote it — and the film version of Goldfinger shows a scene that amounts to rape. Does the successor accept that mores were different a generation ago? Well … ya have to. Can 21st century political correctness be called into play? Well (again) … I wouldn’t be the one to try. I have other, successor expectations — you master the style of your original author, you share their interests and concerns and you tread very carefully in extending the characters — you may beg, steal and borrow, you  may not hijack. For example, will Mr Lugg ever come out of the closet? Ye gods I hope not. And if the original is so beyond the pale why bother with succession? — if Peter Cheyney (“Awful … chauvinistic … forgotten,” as Le Carré said.) has successors I haven’t heard of them. He was ‘of his time’ and is perhaps best left there.

Fortunately Allingham’s characters do not exist in an unchanging present — unlike Spenser who never really ages, even though he might get through more than one dog. (Parker once told me that he’d never have given Spenser’s age away if he’d know the series would run to 20+ novels). Things change. Campion ages. Not sure how old he is*, but Mr Campion’s Wings is set in Marje’s own lifetime — just, it’s 1965. Ripley describes a world Marje knew, in words she might well have chosen herself. For example : 

At the bottom of the garden was an octagonal summer house, made up of panels which opened like hatches to allow a flow of fresh air, or removed entirely so the structure could be used, should the unlikely need ever arise, as a bandstand, assuming the band contained no more than four musicians none of whom played anything larger than a French horn.”

Pure Allingham. I wish I’d written that sentence — I bet Marje wishes she had — but Ripley did.

And, after an introduction like that, you might very well expect the summer house to  play some role in the narrative — only a profligate writer would throw such a sentence away lightly — and it does. 

The plot builds on Amanda Fitton as we saw her in The Fashion in Shrouds (she was not at that time married to Campion). Seventeen years later she is the proprietor of Alandel Aviation, developers, with Cambridge University, of the Goshawk swept-wing fighter. There’s a wealth of convincing technical knowledge on display and my sole criticism of Ripley might be ‘methinks Albert doth protest his ignorance too much’. But, in a sense, Albert stands in for us, the average tech-less readers. He professes ignorance so we don’t have to and can simply glide along and be dazzled by the pyrotechnics. I found myself feeling smug that at least I knew what Reynolds 531 tubing was. Espionage, murder, deception and detection all follow. Hereafter, no more spoilers.

It is customary when reviewing an historical novelist to describe the research as ‘meticulous’ (unless it isn’t), and Ripley sets those of us who pretend to be historical novelists (self-included) taxing questions, such as ‘when did Marathon Peanut Bars change their name to Snickers?’, just to give us sleepless nights.

Mr Campion’s Wings is engaging, knowledgeable (can I say erudite?) … and … it ripples with Riplwit. It’s an authentic re-creation, a superb snapshot of the Cold War era, as Britain teeters on the edge of long-overdue change. 1965 might be Beatle-time, but it’s also the era when men still wore hats, phrases such as ‘scholarship boy’ might still be uttered with a straight face in Cambridge, and buying condoms was a rite-de-passage of cloying embarrassment. This book set me not to re-reading original Allinghams, or to seek out the three or four I didn’t read in my twenties, but to the rest of the Mike Ripley opera. Mr Campion’s Wings is #9 in the series — I have much to catch up.

*Campion has his own Wikipedia page which states his age as 65.

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