By the time Margery Allingham came to write Black Plumes (in 1939) she was well established as a first rate crime novelist. This was partly due to her creation, the much loved Albert Campion, but as this novel shows, she is a writer of great quality. A classical and well-crafted whodunit, this also happens to be a fine novel about how the atmosphere within an enclosed society can easily become soured by ambition, jealousy, and thwarted desire. It also proves that an Allingham book did not need Albert Campion to make it a success.
If I had any niggle, it was a slight over dependence on the ‘…in years to come X would remember this moment…’ device. Other than that it was a fine portrait of a claustrophobic situation, of fear and suspicion. There is an added piquancy to this, given that it was written in 1939, with dark clouds gathering over Europe for a second time in a generation.
The characters are well drawn and inhabit the story quite naturally, even though most are out of their natural environment. The plot is intriguing and contains some wonderfully dramatic set pieces. And always there is Allingham’s dry wit and wonderful observation, small touches of characterization that bring even the minor characters to life.
This would make a marvellous film. Rather, it would have made a marvellous film in the days when the British film industry was still good at this sort of thing – telling a great story with quality acting and highly professional cinematography. These days it would be done on television and treated as a lavish costume drama with some high profile adaptor changing the story for no apparent reason or it would be sent up in a treatment that producers would call ‘ironic’.
Given that Margery Allingham is a far better writer than Agatha Christie or Dorothy L Sayers, given that her stories are far better constructed, more intriguing, and peopled with much more believable characters, it seems a crime that her books are not all in print and readily available.