Flowers for the Judge first published in 1936 is the seventh of the Albert Campion mysteries, but my first time reading one.
Our story is set around a family-run publishing firm, Barnabas Limited. As the book opens, we are told of a strange occurrence in 1911, when Tom Barnabas, one of the founder’s grandsons left home to head to the office and somewhere along the way simply disappeared, never to be seen again. In the present, twenty years later, Barnabas Limited is run by three cousins as partners, John Widdowson, Paul Brande, and Mike Wedgwood, all sons of the founder, Jacoby Barnabas’ daughters. Jacoby’s one surviving son, Sir Alexander is a KC with no interest in the business. Tom’s brother Ritchie is part of the firm but only as a reader, and no one thinks much of him or his abilities-viewing him with a sort of pity.
We find Gina, Paul’s wife, Mike and John at a weekly gathering on a Sunday in Gina (and Paul)’s home (the cousins live on different floors of the same building) where we learn that Paul has not been seen since Thursday. While Paul taking off like this is not unusual, this time around he has been away much too long. Campion, who is a friend of Mike, has also been invited and is asked to look into the matter. But before he can really do anything, the very next morning he is woken by the company’s long-time secretary, Miss Curley (who was also present at the gathering) who tells him Paul’s body has been found. And that too, in the office ‘strong room’ in its basement, a room that Mike had visited the previous evening to fetch some papers. Not only that Gina and Paul did not have a particularly good relationship (Paul was entirely self-absorbed and the two were living separate lives), and Mike is very obviously is in love with Gina. Soon it turns out that there is a lot of circumstantial evidence against Mike from his having a very weak alibi to his car being involved in the crime (no Paul was not run over). He is arrested and put to trial. But Ritchie and Campion are sure that Mike is innocent and Campion sets out to solve the case.
Paul, like the typical murder victim was a fairly obnoxious and unlikeable person, but there doesn’t at first appear to be any one that could have had a strong enough motive (besides Mike, that is). But as Campion begins to look into things, links and clues begin to emerge. Alongside, Mike’s trial proceeds, every sentence of the prosecutor seeming to condemn him. Can Campion solve it in time?
I enjoyed Allingham’s writing from the very start of the book especially the touch of humour in it. The uniquely named Magerfontein Lugg, Campion’s manservant also adds to the humour. A former burglar, Lugg, now increasing in girth (his trousers are described as the ‘hind legs of a black elephant’), is trying to move up in the world serving in Campion’s household. He comes across as lugubrious and is ever grumbling, and seems forever in preparation for the time when Campion’s titled relation will go the way such relations do, so that Campion (and Lugg) can take their ‘rightful’ places in the world. But fun apart, as an ex-burglar, Lugg is a great source of help for Campion when he needs information or access to those in Lugg’s former line that can give it. But he is always at odds with Campion for taking on matters that may reflect badly on them socially. A rather interesting creation from Allingham’s pen.
Another character that really stood out in this one was Ritchie Barnabas. Ritchie is an underdog of sorts not thought much of by his family. He is strange in his habits, speaks in disjointed phrases but is very sensitive, good-hearted and well meaning. Campion soon finds as do we that Ritchie is much more perceptive than he seems at the surface and he turns out to be a strong ally in solving the case.
Of Campion himself, I felt I couldn’t really get as much a sense of as a character as I did of the others. Perhaps this is a consequence of not starting at the beginning of the series.
The mystery itself was a really enjoyable one for me. While one was reasonably sure Mike couldn’t have done it, there is really not even the slightest clue who it could have been until Campion starts to really dig. The story is set in February, when the London streets are always covered in a fog, and it seems as though this represents our mystery as well—the real killer hidden in a fog. Quite a bit of the book focuses on the inquest and then Mike’s trial which we witness in detail. There are also other questions like whether the earlier disappearance of Tom Barnabas was in any way connected with our present-day mystery. All is resolved at the end which I thought was really well done. There was no denouement and last-minute reprieve in the courtroom. Instead, the Mike’s trial ends rather surprisingly and more surprises are in store for us in the last chapter in particular, which was something I wasn’t expecting at all but which certainly brought a smile to my face.
I really enjoyed my first Allingham and look forward to reading more sometime soon!