The Fear Sign [Sweet Danger OR Kingdom of Death] (1933) by Margery Allingham
Albert Campion takes to a bit of thriller/adventurer antics in this fifth entry in Allingham's series. The tiny Balkan principality of Averna becomes a hot-spot when an earthquake opens up a coastline on the Adriatic. There's always been a bit of oil in Averna, but never a good way to get the oil anywhere. Now, it has a handy little place to load up boats with the liquid gold. The hereditary title to Averna belonged to the British family of Pontisbright...but the line is believed to have died out. Campion is called upon to represent British interests and poses as the Hereditary Paladin of Pontisbright and search for the proofs that the place belongs to Britain. There are three proofs that must be found--the crown of Averna, the charter from King Henry the fourth, and a missing receipt for purchase of the land.
But the British government isn't the only party interested in Averna. And Campion and his man Lugg--and loyal friends Eager-Wright, Farquharson, and Guffy Randall are in a race to find the proofs with some very shady and determined characters. They all wind up in the village where the Pontisbright Estate used to stand (it's since been demolished) looking for an inscription on a tree. Near the abandoned estate is an old mill which belongs to the Fittons. In the early 1800s a Fitton tried to claim the Pontisbright Estate--saying that his mother had been secretly married to the Pontisbright heir, but the claim failed for lack of evidence. If Campion can find one group of proofs, he may just find the other--but the ruffians on the other side may have something to say about that...
It had been quite some time since I read a Campion book by Allingham. She really has a way with characters. All of the good guys are quite distinct and their own special flavor. The villains of the piece do get a bit short shrifted...all except for the main villain. So, they don't seem quite as menacing as they might. But the opening scenes with Guffy and the hotel manager are absolutely delightful and well worth the price of admission. In fact, Guffy may just be my favorite character in the book. He is an interesting combination of ready-for-anything....
"It sounds mad," said Guffy. "But I'm with you, of course, if there's anything I can do."
and being shy about trying to get hold of one of the clues by false pretenses (posing as lay-members of the local church and trotting off with an old drum in the possession of a museum)...
Guffy looked profoundly uncomfortable. A naturally law-abiding soul, he was appalled by the illegality of the project.
But he's still game to do what has to be done in the name of justice. In fact, all three of Campion's friends are willing to do whatever he needs them to do--even die in the name of Averna, if necessary. But, of course...it isn't.
My one slight quibble with character is with Dr. Galley. I do think it was a bit much to have the near over-the-top thriller villains vying with the very over-the-top maniacal demon-summoning doctor. His little Ashtaroth ceremony did serve to bring another piece of the puzzle to light, but surely we could have managed that without the theatrics. But overall this was great fun and I enjoyed watching Campion and company get the better of the bad guys. ★★★★First line: A small window in the sunlit, yellow side of the Hotel Beauregard, Mentone, opened slowly, and through it a hand appeared, which, after depositing a compact brown suit-case upon the sill, speedily vanished.
Guffy clutched at the desk for support, while the manager danced around him like an excited Pekingese. (p. 15)
"There is no pastime more calculated to instill into the young gentleman a Thorough Knowledge of Life and a Dignity of Manner than the exercise of polite conversation with his elders. That's on the first page of my etiquette book." (Albert Campion; p. 63)
Last line: Amanda was asleep
Deaths = 4 (three natural; one crushed by mill wheel)