Death of a Ghost (Margery Allingham)

By Margery Allingham

First published: UK, Heinemann, 1934; US, Doubleday, 1934

Blurb (UK)

Allingham - Death of a Ghost.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

A detective-story with a difference.  Not “Who?”, but “How?” and “Can he be stopped?”

In Death of a Ghost Miss Allingham has returned to her Police at the Funeral manner.  the first book was described by Miss Clemence Dane as “a brilliant novel with incidental crimes,” and in this new story also the plot arises inevitably out of characters which are faithfully drawn with great literary skill.

This is a story for connoisseurs.  Mr. Campion again finds himself confronted by a problem, but it is not the usual riddle, “Who did the murder?” – but rather “how did he do it?” and “can he be stopped before he commits further crimes?”

It is the study of an ingenious and subtle mind and its gradual downfall as its belief in its own infallibility forces it onward to commit essays in villainy beyond its powers.

The scene is laid in the art world of London, and the extraordinary crime at a fashionable private view in the strange house of a painter long dead leads the reader at once into the colourful atmosphere of the studios.

A fuller book than Police at the Funeral and with a more ambitious scheme, Death of a Ghost may well establish a new type of detective story.


Blurb (US)

Allingham - Death of a Ghost US.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

A detective novel as absorbing as this needs almost an essay to be presented to you as it should be presented, in all its satanic power and varied excitement.  A baleful light plays across it, the cold whistling wind of fear blows through it…  It begins quietly enough, in the odd household of the late John Lafcadio, Europe’s greatest painter.  It ends in a spell-bound nightmare of horror, as Albert Campion, who has ferreted out a murderer there is no evidence to convict, walks with death through the streets of London.  In between are the clues of the poisoned cherry, the green baize box and the page from a magazine; the woman murdered by a telephone call; the young painter who died with a pair of shears in his back, and whose every painting, in his studio, in the hands of purchasers, disappeared on the day following his death; the red trail of the perfect murderer, trapped into killing, striking again and again to keep his secret safe.  Not only the perfection of its plot, frightening in its plausibility and ruthless strength, but its finely drawn characters and tense emotions, make this new case from Albert Campion’s varied career one of the most spectacular of all detective novels.

My review

Moving from the high-spirited thriller to the detective story proper, this is the first of Allingham’s sophisticated detective novels.  Her ability to observe characters and set them in motion is shown both in the reactions of the crowd present at the unveiling of the eighth posthumous Lafcadio to the murder of Tommy Dacre, and in those who come under suspicion: Lafcadio’s widow, Belle; his grand-daughter, Linda; the extraordinary art critic Max Fustian; the unfortunate Potters, acutely conscious of their lack of talent; and the quite dotty model, Donna Beatrice (née Harriet Pickering), who interests herself in psychomancy and advises others to “vibrate to green when we think of the picture…  Beautiful apple green, the colour of the earth”.

Campion recognizes the murderer three-fifths through not “by the blinding process of quiet, logical deduction, nor yet by the blinding flash of glorious intuition, but by the shoddy, untidy process halfway between the two by which one usually gets to know things”.  Guilt is certain, but impossible to prove; motive is revealed much later.  With the murderer growing gradually more and more insane (SPOILER his mental breakdown mirrored, in this world of colour, by his sartorial collapse, culminating in wearing a tartan waistcoat to a party), Campion offers himself up as a bait in a particularly horrifying climax.

Contemporary reviews

Sunday Times (Dorothy L. Sayers, 18th March 1934):


Miss Margery Allingham has, as she herself points out in a foreword to her new book, two distinct “manners” in narrating the adventures of that attractive gentleman, Mr. Albert Campion.  Sometimes she makes him the hero of a purely adventurous “thriller”, sometimes of a “detective” story of the severer kind.  I think Miss Allingham gains by this versatility.  Her thrillers are the more convincing for the habit of accuracy imposed on her by detective writing, and her more intellectual problems enlivened by the sense of colour and movement that invades them from the thriller side of her mental make-up.  This would not happen to anybody but a very good writer, and her writing is, in fact, excellent.

 Death of a Ghost is a detective story in the manner of Police at the Funeral.  It is a remarkable book in many ways.  Its theme is extremely original, its characterisation is outstandingly good, and it contains one scene which, for genuine pathetic feeling, stands almost alone in detective fiction.  The ending, too, strikes a fine note of horror – not violently imposed for the sake of startling, but foreshadowed and inevitable.

I am bound to say that there seems to be one weak point in the actual plot – one point at which the murderer’s scheme depended upon almost incredible good luck than it really ought to have done.  But the whole conception and handling of the story are so fresh and vivid that this flaw is a trifling matter.  The atmosphere of the studios which envelops the little colony of artists in Bayswater is triumphantly realistic.  Altogether, this is a book you should not miss.


Times Literary Supplement (5th April 1934):

In form this is a detective story, with merits not always found in detective stories.  Several of the people are interesting in themselves, apart from any murder mystery, and so lifelike that one almost doubts the customary fly-leaf note that they are products of the writer’s imagination.  Most striking of all is the “ghost” of the title.  Lafcadio, flamboyant painter, died in 1912, but the story in 1930 depends on his impish legacy; his widow refers to him constantly; so does his grand-daughter, his ex-models and his fantastic little self-appointed publicity agent, Max Fustian.  So Lafcadio dominates the story, just as his portrait by Sargent dominates his old studio – and spectrally dominates the dust cover.  His widow, the “Belle Darling” of one of his pictures, really is an old darling at seventy.  His ex-model, Donna Beatrice (née Harriet Pickering), with her “blue aura”, is much more entertaining to the reader than her exasperated author tells us she was to those who met her.  There is a plan of the house on Regent’s Canal, and at about page 120 we are allowed to know who stabbed Dacre while the lights were out.  (The murderer must have been an almost incredibly quick plotter.)  What we are kept guessing at till the end is why it was done and how to prevent a third murder.  Albert Campion comes in from previous stories as detective, but his rather annoying affectation of idiocy has dropped off.  Incidentally we learn a good deal about the backstairs of the artistic world.  Max’s sale of a spurious Steen to a pompous politician is a gem of the diplomacy which avoids lies.


H.G. O’Neill in the Observer:

The reader, coming upon her work for the first time, will agree that it is something of an event.  The plot is entirely satisfying.  The types are all strongly individual; and they are not only unusual and memorable; they are also vital.


Morning Post:

A strange story of studios, of painters, and of murders…Miss Allingham writes well.  She has a delightful manner, and she knows how to make her characters live (and die).  A book well worth reading.