Thursday, 12 March 2015

Mr Campion's Fox by Mike Ripley reviewed by Julia Jones

With Mr Campion's Fox Mike Ripley is flying solo. His previous novel, Mr Campion's Farewell, took its starting point from a fragment left by Margery Allingham's husband Pip Youngman Carter who died in 1969. It was, however very little more than a starting point and Ripley's experience and professionalism (as well as his long-standing appreciation for Allingham's work) enabled him to pick up the threads of the Allingham world and produce a lively and humorous continuation. With Mr Campion's Fox he offers more of the same, though this time he shifts the location to a bleak little village on the Suffolk coast which has overtones of Allingham's Mystery Mile (1930) or even her more controversial late work The Mind Readers (1965)

I would guess that Ripley would prefer the comparison to the earlier work. Mystery Mile is one of those books that Allingham herself described as 'plum-puddings' – a joyous receptacle into which to cram every morsel of fun, in-jokes and topical allusions to create novels which are entertaining romps rather than exercises in cerebration or suspense-filled thrillers. Ripley's new larger-than-life figures such as the Sisters Mister or smoke-weathered Eppy Mussett fit well into this category. There's plenty of humour, of course, and inconspicuous Allinghamesque touches such as the village policeman's tendency to lapse into a broad Suffolk accent when he senses things are not going well for him.

The Suffolk coastal location is (for me) a major pleasure of the novel. Gapton Spit is a long stretch of shingle that has extended over the centuries to choke off the village from the sea and transform what had been a thriving small port into a backwater centred round a single pub and a traditional small brewery. (Ripley excels in writing about beer.) There's always another aspect to the East Coast of England, facing as it does across the North Sea to potentially hostile countries. Gapton Spit had been the site of a WW2 listening post and now, in the 1960s Cold War period, the ministry of Defence may be renewing its interest. Not for nothing does Ripley name his new spy-master L.C. Deighton.

The decision to remain in the period where Margery Allingham and Pip Youngman Carter left off was probably an inevitable one. It has its difficulties as Albert Campion approaches his seventies and has already, rather too frequently, talked of his retirement. In Mr Campion's Fox Ripley makes good use of the elderly detective's younger (and anyway ageless) wife. Allingham's fans had a tendency to grumble that she never allowed them enough of the slender, red-haired aeronautical engineer Lady Amanda Fitton. This latest novel has her fully involved from the moment of her first appearance at an ambassadorial reception. She is dressed in a 'black velvet figure-hugging tuxedo suit, the white blouse with Peter Pan collar and cuffs and the square-toed heeled boots peeping out from beneath fashionably wide flares' and she positions herself at her husband's side 'with the smoothness of a closing Rolls Royce door without the accompanying thunderous click.' We soon learn that the suit is an Yves Saint Laurent. If you like a bit of proper class with your detection, Lady Amanda is for you.

And, whether or not you're already an Allingham fan, if you enjoy a re-immersement in the world of eight-track stereos and mini-skirts 'no wider than a blacksmith's belt', without too much overt violence or emotional excruciation, then Mr Campion's Fox is most certainly for you.