reviewed by Gail Byrd
In 1929, Margery Allingham created a rare detective, Albert Campion. Rather than the intense detective who eschewed anyone else’s intellect and demonstrated with great pride his own investigative prowess—or the physically fit detective who, along with solving a crime bested his opponents physically—Albert Campion was, and is, a different specimen. Tall and thin, urbane, and appearing perhaps just slightly slow-witted, he was generally underestimated by all who met him; but in the end he reached the correct solution ahead of everyone else.
Enter Mike Ripley who has revived Campion, aged him, and taken him in a new and delightful direction, while at the same time retaining the intellect and dry wit that made the original such a success. Mr. Campion’s Coven is the eighth in the Ripley series, and is filled with dry humor, a delightfully urbane Campion, and includes some lovely cameos from Rupert, Campion’s actor son, Perdita, his actor daughter-in-law, Lady Amanda, his wife, and finally Mason Lowell Clay an American student researching the connection between residents on Hawker’s Island on the Outer Banks of North Carolina with Wicken, a remote hamlet of England that used to be at the sea and now because of shifting seas, is located on a combination of marshland and mud flats.
The main story begins with the discovery of a body on the mud flats and a missing dog belonging to a celebrated acting diva, Dame Jocasta Upcott. Dame Jocasta has asked Campion to find her missing dog and offered to help his son Rupert’s acting career in exchange. With many misgivings, Campion travels to Wicken where he immediately becomes embroiled in the death of the man who turns out to be the former captain of Dame Jocasta’s yacht. His death is somewhat of a puzzle, although everyone is inclined to put it down to having been too much “under the influence” to successfully navigate the extremely small navigable waterway through the mud flats and marshes.
As Campion begins to delve into the death and the interesting nature of the reclusive residents of Wicken, he begins to suspect the death was actually murder. The doctor called to do the post mortem finds evidence of bruising that can’t be explained with the widely accepted accident verdict favored by the local police and he shares his opinion with Campion, who becomes more intrigued. While Campion is doing his own investigation and enlisting the aid of a bright young policeman and a police dog; Rupert, Perdita, and Mason are involved in their own investigation by trying to question the residents of Wicken. The trio is promptly repelled by the Wicken residents, although without real threat of violence.
As the two separate investigations are happening, Dame Jocasta’s agent, Timmy Timms is murdered. He had recently offered Rupert an audition in an upcoming television drama being directed by one of England’s elite directors, if Rupert can find the agent’s dog. When Rupert goes to Timms’ office to discuss all the issues surrounding the missing dog, he is knocked out by the group of men who are apparently responsible for Timms’ murder. While Rupert is never seriously considered a suspect, Campion does get more involved at the threat to his son.
The entire book weaves together witchcraft and wicken beliefs along with crimes such as murder. Through it all Campion appears, occasionally in his own disguise of a somewhat foppish old man who is completely harmless, and always with a bit of tongue in cheek, almost erudite humor. It is easy to develop a mental image of him as a rather elegant senior citizen who wouldn’t pose any type of danger to another human being. For anyone meeting him for a first time,it would be easy to assume if he were asking questions about a crime he was doing so out of idle curiosity and not because he had any type of understanding of what might be happening. In short, he excels in developing a persona that encourages others to underestimate him, much to their disadvantage if they are criminals, and surprise if they are unaware of his rather celebrated status among the law enforcement community.
One word of caution, set aside some time to read if possible, before you open the book. Ripley has written a book that flows seamlessly from one chapter into the next, with such engaging prose you will want to continue reading for the sheer pleasure of doing so. Mr. Campion’s Coven is the epitome of the type of book which allows the reader to have all the clues in front of them and to “match wits” with the book’s protagonist. It can also engage the reader so completely they might not mind being without other forms of entertainment for at least as long as the book lasts.
My thanks to Canongate Books, Severn House, and NetGalley for providing me with an advanced copy of this book for review. The opinions expressed here are entirely my own.