Monday, April 6, 2015

Margery Allingham : Black Plumes, 1940

Margery Allingham, one of the 4 Crime Queen, was one of the big names of the detective novel of the '900. It is no coincidence. Indeed she probed various subgenres in her long career: from the adventurous mystery to the classic whodunnit, from thriller to the locked room, but everything with great class, and much originality, what's in this novel.
That the wind could become almost a cornerstone of a detective story, we didn’t understand.
Just the wind is the basic element of the novel in which I am going to speak, Black Plumes, 1940: appears in all the key moments of the story and with its appearance it marks the rhythm.
And the wind begins the novel: "The october wind, which had promised rain all day, hesitated in its reckless flight down the moist pavements to hurl a handful of fine drops at the windows of the drawing room in the big Hampstead house. The sound was sharp and spiteful, so that the silence between the two women within became momentarily shocked, as if it had received some gratuitous if trivial insult"(Chapter 1, the first page).
The two women are Gabrielle Ivory and Frances Ivory, grandmother and granddaughter: comparison of two generations: the octogenarian Gabrielle, old physically but with the awake mind and the 20 years old Frances, fresh and naive, ready to fall in love but also to fight. No coincidence that two of the three major personalities of the novel (the other is David Field) are women: this is a real novel of women! Almost all of the most important roles are performed by women: Gabrielle, Frances, Phillida, the nurse Gabrielle, the secretary Dorothy. The men have minor roles or almost, except David who is the hero without blemish and without sin, like a knight of the past, who saves the damsel (Frances) from the mire of the ogre's turn (Lucar). But among the various female figures, in my opinion those I think stand out more and more are precisely Frances and Gabrielle. Not by chance the wind, creeping and producing a sharp sound, is as imposed to the attention of the reader the two figures: the noise separates them, breaking the silence that was in common and defines the contours; but at the same time it unites them, differentiating them from other persons who are waving vaguely in the big house.
Gabrielle is the mother of Meyrich Ivory, gallery owner, master of the Art Gallery at 29, Sallet Square, a paradise of collectors, where you can buy the junk as well as the masterpieces of the great artists. The gallery over time has had ups and downs but on it weighs a tragedy: Dollie Godolphin, famed explorer who had shared with Robert Madrigal and his orderly Henry Lucar, a trip to Tibet in search of fabulous treasures to can bring the Gallery to the  glories of the past, has disappeared. Seems to have been sacrificed, sick, unable to be transported, by an act of personal heroism, allowing to  two companions to escape, leaving him in the midst of perpetual snow. When Godolphin has gone away, was the favorite of Phillida but she after having waited in vain and left for dead, she got married just with Robert, which quickly became a member of the father and his lender. But also, in his absence, a bad manager. The fact is that, in addition, Robert is strangely under the thumb of his secretary Lucar, a slippery and dangerous character, who tries to take advantage of his strong influence on Robert in the absence of the owner of the gallery, to marry his more young daughter, Frances, although she completely refuses him. Why does Robert support Lucar in his attempt to marry Frances and does support him at the climbing to the property of Ivory family? Lucar blackmails Robert and keeps him in his power by virtue of something compromising he knows and that Robert does not want you  know : more, to win the mere strength of the husband of Phillida, Lucar uses real intimidations: he destroys at the last time the catalog of the Gallery prepared for the visit of the Royals, he crashes a precious vase, and irreparably damages a painting of the young painter David Field, protected of Meyrich and much appreciated.
David is the third strong character of the story: is he who saves Frances from the mire of Lucar, simulating an engagement in the eyes of the world, that instead there is not, the more he is refractory to the associations and even more at weddings; however, this union, which initially is fictitious, it will become true because he will win the girl's heart. It is interesting to note that, while Robert and Henry are linked to one another by hatred and by a ratio of psychological submission (of the first to the second), but they tend to act as members of the gallery, trying to become the masters marrying the two daughters Meyrich, , the only one who would not want to bind to the gallery, engaging emotionally, that is David, is he to do so. When David and Frances, they will agree to cheat Lucar, is always the wind to scan the march: “As they went over each incident in that fateful day the motif of the squalling wind kept recurring like the thin blast of a warning trumpet, but they were deaf to it and went on their predestined way unaware” (end of Chapter 3).
Then, at the chapter 6, the wind reappears, just to focus attention and Allingham writes that someone had come out in the dark and in the wind.  

The wind anticipates the first tragic event: Robert disappears after a discussion with David. Then, here is the wind assaults the house, as to bring death and other disorders. The same Phillida talking with Frances, speculates that her husband is mad: and in the short dialogue, the wind takes on a typical characterization of the novels of atmosphere, howling, raising the tension of engraved:“Frances…have you ever thought that Robert might be mad? The question would have been remarkable if only because it came from Phillida and concerned the state of mind of somebody other than herself, but up in the dark-bedroom, with the firelight flickering and the wind chattering round the house, its very directness shot a chill to Frances’ diaphragm” (Chapter 4).
But like a clockwork, while Robert is found, or rather is found his body, already in a state of decomposition, in an old cupboard (hidden by overcoat, hat, as if he had been to go out and then he had been surprised) in that room overlooking the garden, where he had been seen by Frances discuss with David, in the Chapter 9, the wind attacks the house again, with the same irritating intermittently, as if an enemy in the flesh was trying to break into their fortress.
The body has a deep wound: something edgy and sharp, like a long letter opener, hit him in the ribs, catching up to the heart, only that the weapon is not found.
Many suspects: David first; but also Phillida, that at her husband's death, shows her joy; Gabrielle, who despite being invalid,  will be found to be good to walk alone at night; Lucar, who has taken flight, and for this would seem to be the culprit acquired; the same Meyrick, who would be able to return in disguise; and the same Godolphin, that in the same way, would be able to return and to kill the first rival: only that these two would materially excluded.
To complicate the facts, is the discovery that Phillida, before she married Robert, had married secretly with Godolphin, before he left for the ill-fated expedition, and that the witness of the two would be the same Field.
Gabrielle is contrary that the niece fresh widow is going to end up in bed with another, even if he would be her first husband; and so Godolphin and the old, agree to an armistice under the roof of the old house: if Godolphin could find the culprit, could take away Phillida.

After the return of the explorer, and especially after that of Lucar, which convenes in the living room for a series of messages that he wants to launch the murderer, in order to make him understand he knows (and therefore to involve him in a blackmail) , here again the wind that makes the appearance, combined with another criminal event: in the Chapter 15 the wind begins to blow. When ? How ? When the long brocade curtains billow behind Lucar, driven by the chilly breeze coming in from a narrow chink of high sash window.
Whenever the wind appears, something happens: it is like a messenger of something, even of misfortune. The reference to the sash window to me does not seem random, at this time. And Lucar will soon found dead, in the same way than Robert, by means of a sharp and long weapon, like a rapier, but about which there is no trace.
Among all the suspects, David seems to be the most classic among the culprits and for this will also be stopped, after the murder number two. But meanwhile the real culprit when will believe to be safe, it will be unmasked by the Inspector Bridie, that to do so, will have to convince the characters to eliminate false clues that don’t help him to solve the riddle.
At a novel extremely fascinating. Margery Allingham draws from the great classical tradition the theme of the wind, herald of doom when not of messages that are not interpreted in the right way. The interesting thing is that the Allingham, thanks to a very special trick, ie comparing each time the wind to persons or objects,with the mechanism of similarities, gives it a soul, making it a real character like those canonical otherwise presented in the book. A hidden character, but with a very special importance, as it is just the wind to introduce the various sections, to announce to the reader that something is going to happen: it's like an alarm bell. Other times, however, it behaves as if it were an extension of the people's will, for example, when Frances and David are on the roof and he tries to run away to escape an unjust arrest and “the wind attacks with greedy nervousness their clothes and throws soot in the eye”, like you read in Chapter 16.
Sometimes it seems that Margery Allingham recourses to metaphor: when Frances, in the first chapter, prefers to take refuge in the Rolls Royce to escape the ravages of wind, as if to take refuge in the maternal arms to escape to the insistence of a voluptuous and spiteful lover: “Meyrick’s Rolls had never seemed more comfortingly magnificent than it did as she climbed into it out of the irritating wind wich snatched at her hat and whipped at her knees”
Giving to the wind a role that elsewhere it would not have, not destining him to contribute to the creation of the atmosphere, but inserting it in the same mechanism of the action, Margery Allingham undoubtedly insert an element of great originality. For the rest, however, the novel is an undoubted classic Mystery.
First the cupboard in which is placed a corpse: it is a topos that is already in The Yellow Room by Mary Robert Rinehart, in Murder by the Clock by Rufus King, even in The Woman in the Wardrobe by The Brothers Shaffer (although after the release of this novel).
And the presence of the gong, reminds us many famous novels of the Golden Age: from Sax Rohmer to Agatha Christie (And Then There Were None), from Ngaio Marsh (A Dead Man Lied) to Christopher Bush (The Case of the Chinese Gong).
Another interesting feature is how  contributes to the atmosphere, even the house itself, a witness, as the old Gabrielle, of the legacy of the Victorian era, with its furniture, its curtains, its brocades, his paintings: a set of tinsel that, weighing down the atmosphere, also make tangible and striking the contrast between the old and the new, between Gabrielle and Frances (and David).
A great masterpiece by a grandest writer who could write very well.
Pietro De Palma

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