A mysterious invention causes mayhem in a coastal English village—from “my very favourite of the four Queens of Crime” (J. K. Rowling).
The ancient hamlet of Saltey, once the haunt of smugglers, now hides a secret rich and mysterious enough to trap all who enter . . . and someone in town is willing to terrorize, murder, and raise the very devil to keep that secret to themselves.
When a transistor thought to be the key to telepathic communication is found, Albert Campion is called to sort fact from fiction. But the device at the center of the mystery is in the possession of two schoolboys, and whether they stole it or invented it, there are others who will kill to get hold of it.
“Allingham has a strong, well controlled sense of humour, a power of suggesting character with a few touches and an excellent English style. She has a sense of the fantastic, and is never dull” —Times Literary Supplement
About the Author
Date of Birth:May 20, 1904
Date of Death:June 30, 1966
Place of Birth:London
Place of Death:Colchester, Essex, England
Education:Endsleigh House School, Colchester; the Perse School, Cambridge; and the Regent Street Polytechnic, London
Read an Excerpt
The Breaking Ground
The great city of London was once more her splendid self; mysterious as ever but bursting with new life.
In the tightly packed clusters of villages with the ancient names — Hackney, Holborn, Shoreditch, Putney, Paddington, Bow — new towers were rising into the yellow sky; the open spaces if fewer, were neater, the old houses were painted, the monuments clean.
Best news of all, the people were regrown. The same savagely cheerful race, fresh mixed with more new blood than ever in its history, jostled together in costumes inspired by every romantic fashion known to television. While round its knees in a luxuriant crop the educated children shot up like the towers, full of the future.
Early one Thursday evening, late in the year at one particular moment, just before the rush hour, when the lights were coming up and the shadows deepening, five apparently unrelated incidents in five ordinary, normal lives were taking place at points set far apart within the wide boundaries of the town. Five people, none of whom were particularly aware of the others, were taking the first casual steps in one of those mystic, curling patterns of human adventure which begin with imperceptible movement, like the infinitesimal commotion which surrounds a bud thrusting through the earth but which then sometimes develops and grows up swiftly into a huge and startling plume to alter the whole landscape of history.
The first of the five was no more than an idle thought. The D.D.I. of the Eastern Waterside Division of Metropolitan Police was sitting in his office kicking himself gently because he had forgotten to tell his old friend Detective Superintendent Charles Luke of the Central Office, who had just left after a routine visit, a little piece of nonsense which might have intrigued that great man. They had been so busy moralising over the effects of the latest threat of total world annihilation on the local suicide rate amongst teenagers that he had quite forgotten his own story about that well known city 'character', the End of the World Man, which had come into his mind and gone out again whilst Luke was talking.
It was an odd thing he had seen with his own eyes as he had travelled through the West End in a police car at the back end of the summer. As he had passed the corner of Wigmore Street and Orchard Street up by the Park, he had observed the familiar figure of the old fanatic in the dusty robes and hood carrying his banner proclaiming the worst, striding away from him among the shopping crowds on the pavement. Less than four minutes later by his own watch after a clear run, he had seen him again, head on this time, walking up the Haymarket from the direction of the Strand. So, as Luke might possibly have been entertained to hear, the man had either developed a power of miraculous transportation which seemed unlikely on form, or there were two of him dressed exactly alike and one of them at any rate taking great care to resemble the other. This was funny in view of what he and Luke had been saying about the increase of interest in these people's gloomy subject.
The second stirring in the hard ground, taking place at exactly the same time, was a conversation which occurred on the western side of the city where two people were talking in a Regency Rectory in a half forgotten backwater called St Peter's Gate Square.
They were in a book-filled study, the smaller of two downstair reception rooms. Canon Avril had possessed the living so long that the tremendous changes which had dismembered the world outside had come very gently to his own household. Now in his old age, a widower for many years, his daughter married and away, he lived on the ground floor humbly but comfortably while William Talisman, his verger, made his home in the basement and Mrs Talisman kept an eye on them both.
Upstairs there was the Canon's daughter's suite, which was now let as à pied a terre to his nephew Mr Albert Campion and his wife when they visited London; and above that there was a cottage-like attic flat, at the moment also let to relatives. These were Helena Ferris and her brilliant young American husband, who fled to it whenever they could escape from the island research station on the East Coast where he was working.
The Canon was a big man with a great frame and untidy white hair. He had a fine face which, despite its intelligence, was almost disconcertingly serene. He had seen the neighbourhood decline from Edwardian affluence to near-slum conditions and now edge back again to moneyed elegance. Throughout all the changes his own income had remained the same and his present poverty could have been agonising, but he had few needs and no material worries whatever. He was certainly shabby and it was true that at the end of each week it was literally impossible to borrow so much as a shilling from him, but he remained not only happy but secure throughout the harrowing crises which so often sprang up around him. Nor was he a visionary. There was a practical element in his outlook, even if it was apt to appear slightly out of alignment to those who were unaware that he did not stand in the dead centre of his own universe.
One of his most sensible innovations was in the room with him at the moment, interrupting him almost unbearably with her well-meaning chatter.
Miss Dorothy Warburton was a maiden lady of certain everything — income, virtue and age; and she lived in one of the two cottages just past the Church next door. She managed the Canon's personal finances in exactly the same way as she managed the Church Fête. That is to say, firmly, openly and, of course, down to the last farthing. He had no privacy, nothing of his own. His charities were subject to her scrutiny and had to be justified and this kept him factual and informed about what things did or did not cost. However, apart from these, material considerations were not permitted to weigh upon him and he never forgot how blessed he was or how much he owed his dear Decimal Dot, as he called her.
On her side she respected him deeply, called him 'her Church Work' and bossed him as she would certainly have done a father. Mercifully she did not consider herself unduly religious, seeing her role as a Martha rather than a Mary, and it may have been something to do with the classic resentment which made her a little insensitive where he was concerned.
This was the hour which the Canon liked to set aside. It had become for him a period of professional activity for which few gave him credit. He never explained, being well aware of the pitfalls in that direction, but accepted interruptions meekly if he could not avoid them. On the other hand, he never permitted himself to be discouraged from what he felt was his chief duty. With the years he had become one of the more practised contemplative minds in a generation which neglected the art; simple people often thought him lovable but silly, and those who were not so simple, dangerous. Avril could not help that; he did what he had to do and looked after his parish, and every day he sat and thought about what he was doing and why and how he was doing it.
Miss Warburton could not make out what he was up to, wasting time and not even resting, and every so often when she had an excuse, she used to come in and prod him to find out.
Today she was full of news and chatter.
'House full tomorrow!' she said brightly.
'You will enjoy that! Albert and Amanda and their little nephew Edward, and Helena and Sam, all home for half term. That will be lovely for you and such a change!'
Avril knew it would be. After weeks of having the place empty he could hardly miss it. It was she who was most lonely, he feared, and he let her chatter on. 'Mrs Talisman is baking a cake in case they ask Superintendent Luke over. She thinks that because she can cook and lives in a basement it's the correct thing to do, since he's a policeman! I wonder she doesn't make it a rabbit pie and have done with it since we're all out to be Victorian. Poor Martin Ferris. He works far too hard on that dreadful electronics island.'
'It sounds like it, if he can't be spared for a week-end up here with his family when the child comes home for half term, but must stay out on that freezing marsh researching. I never saw two young people so much in love when they started, but I warn you, Canon, that marriage could founder if they drive him like that. I suppose we're going to have another war.'
'I hope not!'
'So do I. Things are quite dear enough already. I only have to put my nose in the supermarket and I spend a pound. I saw Mrs Flooder by the way and heard a most extraordinary story. The poor wretched man could have died and burnt the house down.'
Avril did not rise to the bait but his eyes lost their introspection as a trickle of corrosive poison crept into his heart. She had reminded him of a silly incident and his own behaviour in it which had been careless and not even like him. He would not have believed he could have been so stupid.
'She told me you saw her,' Miss Warburton continued in her instructive way. 'You ran right into her, I believe, just as she was coming out of the shop. She nearly dropped her parcels and you changed the subject by telling her that her sister's boy had put up the banns at last.'
The Canon bowed his venerable head. It had not happened like that at all. The bison of a woman, maddened with acquisitiveness and laden with loot, had almost knocked him over, sworn at him for being in the way and turned to sycophantic mooing as she recognised her parish priest. It was then that the fatal statement had escaped him.
'Why, it's Mrs Flooder. I've just been hearing your nephew's good news. A grand wedding in the family, eh?'
Before the final word was out of his mouth he had recognised his mistake. He had broken rule number one in his book; he had made trouble.
The news had crept into Mrs Flooder's intelligence visibly like a flame creeping up a fuse and the explosion was quite frightful.
'Cat! My sister Lily's a cat. Never told me one bloody word! Hoping I'll stay away. Just you wait until I get hold of her. Dirty little lying cat. I'll drop in as I go past!'
Avril had seen her rush off with his heart full of self-loathing. The tasteless blunder had bothered him out of all proportion and all today he had been irked by it. He slid a little lower in his chair.
'It was the first she'd heard of the marriage so she went straight to her sister's house,' continued Miss Warburton, relieved that she had interested him; at least he wasn't ill. 'She told me to tell you she would never have dreamed of dropping in if you hadn't mentioned the white wedding and the hired hall....'
'I said no such thing!'
'Never mind, it's a mercy if you did. Lily was out, you see, and Mrs Flooder found the poor man choking, smoke coming from under his door. It seems he'd fallen over and broken his hip — caught his foot in the cord of the electric bowl fire. He was too weak to shout by the time Mrs Flooder got there.'
Avril sat up in astonishment and concern.
'Who was this?'
'Lily's lodger — taken in to help pay for the wedding, I shouldn't be surprised. He could have burned to death if that woman Flooder hadn't broken in to look for her sister. She thought she was hiding up.'
'I'd never heard of him.'
'Nor had I. He moved in one evening and this happened the next morning. Mrs Flooder can't get over it. She said she'll always "take notice of a clergyman" because she'd "gone in to make a beastly row and before she knew it, there she was, a heroine!" There, I thought that would make you laugh so I'll leave you in peace. Have a little doze.'
As the door closed very softly behind her, presumably in case he had fallen asleep already, Avril tried to rearrange his mind so that the sense of insult which the story had aroused in him could be isolated and exorcised.
He was not in the least surprised by the coincidence. He spent his existence watching life's machinery and could hardly be expected to be astonished if he saw the slow wheels move, but he was startled by his grievance. What had so upset him was that it should be a weakness and not a strength of his own which had been graciously permitted to play its tiny part in assisting this unknown fellow-sojourner. He had caught himself thinking that surely he might have been allowed to make a kindly or constructive gesture instead of a vulgar breach of confidence. As the absurdity of his complaint crystallised he took himself in hand and his professional philosophy stirred itself to meet the tiny emergency.
At length he bent his head and folded his hands on his waistcoat; his eyes were bright and intelligent in the dusk. The question which had arisen so absurdly was, he saw, a vast one, beset with dangers. For the next half hour he proceeded through the spiritual minefield, his heart in his mouth. It was this, rather than the little coincidence which occasioned it, which was to be of such curious significance in the breakthrough.
The third of the five tiny incidents which seemed at first to be so slightly related to each other, was another private conversation which also concerned the vocation of the speakers, but this time of very different people.
While old Canon Avril was listening to Dot Warburton far across the Park, a black limousine with a custom-built body crept up the incline in Brick Street West, and stopped outside a small house whose windows were dark.
The shadow sitting in the back tossed a key to the chauffeur, who slid out of his seat to unlock the front door before returning to release his passenger who passed inside like a dark cloud. The chauffeur closed the street door behind him, faded back to the car and drove away, unaware that the visit was not quite the normal Thursday evening routine with the Boss in a black mood.
Within the house the vestibule was dimly lit and the grey walls and carpet gave no indication of the distinctive decor of the one big room which took up most of the first floor.
The thin woman who waited in it was a little too old to be so palely blonde but was still extremely good-looking. As soon as she heard the car door slam she rose and stood waiting, a trace of deference by far the softest thing about her. The apartment surrounding her was remarkable and achieved the effect at which the designer had aimed, both reflecting and opposing the painting which was its centrepiece.
Miss Merle Rawlins had bought the picture at the fabulously successful Louis Celli's first post-surrealist exhibition. She had indicated where it should hang on the long wall directly opposite the door and had left the rest to a young Frenchman who was becoming almost equally well known. The result was that most people entering for the first time found themselves shocked without understanding why, although Miss Rawlins and Bertram Alexander, first Baron Ludor of Hollowhill in Surrey and Chairman of UCAI, who paid for it, had no difficulty whatever.
The painting was called Gitto and was a lifesize portrait of the fully-grown male gorilla of that name in the Wymondham Zoo. Celli's realism, which was always so much more than ruthlessly photographic, had here achieved a passionate quality and the great black primate, standing in a lime-green jungle with one paw on a tortured tree stump and the other scratching a thigh of truly terrible muscle, had captured the black-ice tragedy of the brute.
The portrait had caused a sensation when it was first shown, for the stony face was strong enough for nobility and probably sufficiently intelligent to recognise that it was without hope of evolution. It met one as one arrived, unutterably sad, but dangerous and certainly not for pity. Merle Rawlins had bought the work of art because she adored it and the Frenchman had hung the wall behind it with a formal Florentine flock paper of black on grey, flooded the floor with cherry pile, and shrouded all the window end of the room with lime-green glass fabric. He had then subdued the furnishing to one twelve-foot curved couch in black leather and simulated monkey fur and the joke, such as it was, was over. Lord Ludor enjoyed it; he knew that whereas other people might snigger, if they were brave enough, at the likeness between himself and the portrait, Merle had certainly been crazy to get it and liked to live with it because it epitomised the terror and excitement he had always been able to kindle in her. She had been the finest secretary he had ever had and as a mistress she worked hard to please, studying him in all things, putting him first, soaking herself in his needs until, as on an evening like this, she came into her own and was irreplaceable. At his home in the Surrey town of Hollowhill Lady Ludor attended to the furnishings but here evidences of his own taste were everywhere. The only moving thing when he came in was the new toy which Merle had been given by the sales manager of a subsidiary in a more or less open attempt to capture Ludor's personal interest. It looked exactly like an orthodox television set, but showed film of a kind which even in these uninhibited days could not have been put out by any public broadcasting service in the world. She was running it without the sound because he expected her to be alone and might for a moment have mistaken the canned words for conversation and torn the house down. As it was, his heavy glance, which noted her and passed on without altering, came to rest on the screen and he stood for a second looking at its somewhat laborious salacity before he said: 'Turn that thing off.'
Excerpted from "The Mind Readers"
Copyright © 1965 Margery Allingham.
Excerpted by permission of Ipso Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 The Breaking Ground,
2 Boffin Island,
3 Half Term,
5 Longfox's I.G.,
6 Interested Persons,
7 Brains at Work,
8 Expert Opinion,
9 The Promenading Cat,
10 Husbands and Wives,
11 The Longfox Method,
12 Official View,
13 The End of the World,
14 The Sound of Drumming,
15 The Islanders,
16 Things you could Tell an Old Friend,
17 Sparks and Ashes,
18 The Spy,
19 Snake Bite,
20 Behind the Scenes in an Old Curiosity Shop,
22 Breakthrough I,
23 Breakthrough II,