“If I had to vote for the single best detective story, this would be it.” —A.S. Byatt
Celebrated amateur detective Albert Campion awakes in hospital, accused of attacking a police officer and suffering from acute amnesia. All he can remember is that he was on a mission of vital importance to His Majesty’s government before his accident. On the run from the police and unable to recognize even his faithful servant or his beloved fiancée, Campion struggles desperately to put the pieces together—while World War II rages and the very fate of England is at stake.
Published in 1941, Traitor’s Purse is “a wartime masterpiece” (The Guardian).
“Uncommonly exciting stuff, replete with Allingham’s skill in story-building and the plausible characters that make her as much a fine novelist as a mystery writer.” —The New Republic
“Margery Allingham stands out like a shining light. And she has another quality, not usually associated with crime stories, elegance.” —Agatha Christie
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 muttering was indistinct. It crept down the dark ward, forcing itself upon the man who lay in the patch of light at the far end of the vast room.
It was a pleasant muttering. It made a reassuring undercurrent below the worry, that terrifying anxiety which was thrusting icy fingers deep into his diaphragm.
He tried to concentrate on the muttering. Mercifully it was recognizable. There were two distinct voices and when he could catch them the words meant something. That was good. That was hopeful.
In a little while the words might start connecting and then, please God, he would learn something and this appalling fear would recede.
From where he lay he could just see a wedge of polished floor, a section of a neat empty bed, and a tall shrouded window, fading into complete darkness at the top where the shaded light over his own head was too faint to reach it. All these were entirely unfamiliar. He was not even sure that he was in a hospital. That was part of the whole situation. He knew what a hospital was; that was comforting. They were large grey buildings, made grimly gay by enormous posters announcing scarifying debts. The recollection of those placards cheered him up. He could still read; he was sure of that. Sometimes one couldn't. Sometimes on these occasions one could only recognize spoken words. That was an odd piece of information to remember now. His mind was clear enough as far as it went ... as far as it went.
He concentrated on the muttering. It was a long way away. They must be just outside the farther door up there in the darkness. The woman was a nurse, of course. The discovery delighted him foolishly. He was getting on. At any moment now other obvious things must occur to him.
He had no idea who the man was, but his rumble was human and friendly. He settled himself to listen.
'I shan't question him myself, you know.' He heard the man's words with mild interest.
'I daresay not.' She sounded acid. 'It's very serious indeed. I wonder they left him alone with us here. It's not very nice.'
'There's no need to worry about that, Miss.' The rumble was aggrieved. 'I'd like a quid for every one I've handled. He'll be quiet enough, you'll see. Probably he won't even remember what's happened – or he'll say he doesn't until he's seen a lawyer. They're like that nowadays, up to anything.'
The man in bed lay very still. The muttering had ceased to be so comforting. He forgot to be glad that it was coherent. He listened avidly.
'They'll hang him, I suppose?' said the nurse.
'Bound to, Miss.' The man was both apologetic and definite. 'It was one of us, you see, so there's no way of getting out of it. Once a man slugs an officer of police he's for it. It's a necessary precaution for the safety of the public,' he added, not without satisfaction. 'This chap had all that money on him, too. That'll take a bit of explaining on its own.'
'All I can say it's very unpleasant.' The nurse crackled a little after she had spoken and the man in bed thought she was coming in. He close his eyes and lay rigid. There were no footsteps, and presently she spoke again.
'It seems very strange here without any patients,' she said and laughed a little unnaturally, as if she recognized the ghostliness of the great empty wards. 'We're only a skeleton staff left behind to deal with emergencies like this. We're the one hospital in the town cleared for action in case of anything. All our regulars have been evacuated. I don't know how they're all getting on in the country, I'm sure.'
'My missus and the kids are in the country,' said the policeman unexpectedly. 'It keeps me short and she's lonely. ...' His voice died away into a murmur of confidence and at the other end of the ward the man in bed opened his eyes again.
Slugging a policeman. He knew what that meant, whatever condition his mind was in. That was pretty serious. It was so serious that it made him sweat.
He had had nightmares like that and he'd known policemen. Now he came to consider the matter it seemed to him that he had known policemen very well and had liked them.
What on earth had happened to him? The bobby outside had just said that he might not remember anything about it. Well, he didn't. He didn't remember anything about anything. That was the anxiety, or part of it. He did not remember anything at all. There was only that secret worry, that gnawing, fidgeting, terrifying anxiety, beyond any consideration of his personal safety; that awful half-recollected responsibility about fifteen. Fifteen. He had no idea what the figure signified. That part had gone completely. But it was both urgent and vital: he did know that. It towered over the rest of his difficulties, a great dim spirit of disaster.
Now, to add to everything else, he was going to be hanged for slugging a policeman. He might have slugged him too; that was the devil of it. Anyhow, there was that fool bobby talking to a nurse about it as if it were a foregone conclusion. They expected him to call in a solicitor, did they? A fine chance he had of helping any solicitor to make a case, he who didn't even know his own name!
Moved by indignation and the odd singleness of purpose symptomatic of his condition, he got out of bed.
He moved very quickly and naturally, still partly wrapped in the shrouding comfort of semi-consciousness, and therefore made no noise at all.
He chose the nearest door, since even he recognized the prudence of avoiding the mutterers, and his bare feet were silent on the tiles of the passage. It was a wide corridor, clean and yet ill lit because the bulbs were shaded heavily and cast separate circles of light on the gleaming floor.
It was in one of these circles that he saw the hairpin. He stooped to pick it up mechanically and the wave of dull pain which swept over him as he bent down frightened him. This was a fine kettle of fish. What was going to happen now? He was going to pass out, he supposed, and be dragged back and hanged for slugging a policeman. God Almighty, what a position!
The tiles, striking cold on his bare soles, pulled him together a little, and he became aware for the first time that he was undressed and the coarse hospital pyjamas were his only covering.
He glanced at the row of shining doors on his left. At any moment one of these might open and Authority emerge. It would be a dreadful supercilious Authority, too, properly clothed and antipathetic.
It was a real nightmare. This idea seemed feasible and he seized on it gratefully. The conviction relieved him of a great deal of worry. For one thing, it did not matter so much that his brain was so unreliable.
All the same, even in dreams certain problems are urgent and it was obvious that some sort of clothes were imperative if he were to have a dog's chance with the lurking Authority behind those shining doors.
He glanced round him anxiously. The walls were as bare as an empty plate save for the fire-buckets, and the alcove beneath that crimson row escaped him until he was upon it, and then the glimpse of the red-rimmed glass case within jerked him to a standstill. He stood before the cupboard transfixed. There was the usual paraphernalia inside. A black oilskin coat hung at the back and the toes of a pair of thigh-boots showed just beneath it, while the hose was draped round the ensemble in neat heraldic festoons.
The man in pyjamas ignored the invitation printed on the enamelled plate requiring him to break the glass. Instead he concentrated on the keyhole in the smooth red wood. When he lifted his hand to touch it he rediscovered the hairpin and a warmth of satisfaction spread over him. So it was one of those merciful dreams in which things came out all right – that was, if it worked.
He had no time to speculate on his own somewhat peculiar accomplishments. The bent wire flicked over the lock easily, as if he had done it a hundred times. The absence of oilskin trousers bothered him, but the boots were tremendous. They came well up over his thighs and the coat had a belt which took off and could be slipped through the boot-loops. The sou'wester cap which fell out of the ensemble struck him as amusing, but he put it on and buttoned the coat up to his throat with deep relief.
Any incongruity in the costume did not occur to him. He was still moving with the simple directness of emergency. There was danger behind him and something tremendously important ahead. He was going away from the one and approaching the other. It appeared both sensible and elementary.
The row of doors still remained closed. There was no sound anywhere and no draught. The corridor was blank and quiet, but all the same it breathed. It was alive. He had no illusions about that. Wherever he was, whoever he was, drunk, mental, or dreaming, he was still wide awake enough to be able to tell a live building from an empty one. There were people about all right.
The door of the case imperfectly closed swung open again and startled him as it touched him. That was no good. That would give him away at once. If that crackling nurse put her head out of the ward that would be the first thing her pincenez would light on. He thrust it back into its place, using far more force than he had intended. The thin glass splintered easily. The gentle clatter it made on the tiles was almost musical, but the automatic bell, which he had failed to notice above the case, was a different matter.
It screamed at him, sending every nerve in his body tingling to the roots of his hair. It bellowed. It raved. It shrieked, tremblingly hysterical in the night, and from every side, above him, and beneath him, other bells echoed it in a monstrous cacophony of alarum.
The building was alive all right. His senses had not deserted him. Doors swung open, rushing feet swept down on him, cries, sharp demands for information, raised anxious voices, they whirled round his head like bees from an overturned hive.
He ran for it, with his oilskin coat flapping and scraping round his hampered limbs. He passed the lift cages and sped on to the staircase. As he reached the second landing he collided with an elderly man in a white coat, who caught his sleeve.
'Can't wait, sir.' The words escaped him as he wrenched himself free. 'Look after your patients,' he shouted as an afterthought as he took on the next flight.
Meanwhile the blessed bells continued. Their shrill clamour was inspiring. If only they kept it up until he made the ground.
He arrived in the main entrance hall sooner than he expected. Here too there was wild excitement. Someone had lowered most of the lights so that the large double doors could be thrown open, and a porter was exhorting everyone in sergeant-major tones to go quietly.
The man in the oilskins plunged across the tiled floor, guided instinctively by the nearest blast of cold air. A nurse stepped aside for him and a doctor touched his shoulder.
'Where is it, fireman?'
'Round the back. No danger. Keep them quiet. No danger at all.' He succeeded in sounding wonderfully authoritative, he noticed. He had almost reached the threshold of the emergency doors when a girl slipped in front of him. As he dodged round her she spoke quietly.
'Is it by the gate?' she inquired idiotically.
He glanced at her over his shoulder and received a momentary impression of a heart-shaped face and disconcertingly intelligent brown eyes.
'The fire's at the back, Miss. Nothing serious,' he said briefly and passed on.
It was a completely meaningless encounter and the girl might well have been half-witted for all he knew, but she left an uncomfortable doubt in his mind and he dived out into the darkness eagerly.
It was not a pitch-black night. There was a moon behind the thin coverlet of clouds and, as soon as his eyes became accustomed to the change, the shadowy greyness of the darkened town became fairly negotiable.
The scene meant nothing to him. He was in a large semicircular drive in which a dozen cars were parked, while beyond roofs and spires rose up in velvet silhouette against the lighter sky.
He took the nearest car. It seemed the wisest thing to do at the time, although he had some difficulty in managing the controls, hampered as he was by the mighty boots. Still, the little runabout started and he took her gently down the slope to the open gates. He turned east when he reached the high road, mainly because it seemed more likely to be lucky than the other direction, and, treading hard on the accelerator, he rattled on down the dim ribbon of asphalt which was just visible in front of his single hooded headlight.
He had picked a terrible car. The discovery was particularly disconcerting because he fancied he was in the habit of driving something different altogether. Not only was this uncomfortable little machine cramped, but the steering was alarming, with a full turn play on the wheel at least, while somewhere behind him a suggestive clanking was growing noticeably louder.
The road, which was broad and lined with dim houses set back behind overgrown shrubberies, was quite new to him. It might have been any road in England for all he knew. There was no traffic and no street lamps. He drove anxiously, coaxing the unresponsive machine to further effort. Now it was a real nightmare, the familiar kind, in which one struggles down a dark tunnel with terror behind one and feet which become more and more laden at every step.
He had travelled half a mile or so before he met another vehicle and it was with relief that he saw a pair of darkened sidelights swaying down the road towards him. They turned out to belong to a bus. The interior was darkened, but as it came up with him he caught a glimpse of the dim number over the cab. It was a 15. The sight jolted him and for an instant recollection rushed at him in a great warm sweep of bright colours, only to recede again, leaving him desperate. Something was frighteningly urgent and important. There was something he had to do instantly and the responsibility concerned was tremendous.
For a moment he had had it almost within his brain's grasp and yet now it was all gone again, all lost. What he did know was bad enough, he recollected with something of a shock. The police were after him, apparently for murder. The clanking at the back of the car ceased to be ominous and became downright sinister. At any moment now the big-end must go and he would find himself stranded in the suburbs of an unknown town where his present costume would damn him the instant he was seen.
It was at this point that he became aware of the car behind. There was no way of telling its size or make, for its single eye was as dim and downcast as his own. He pulled in a little to allow it to pass, but the driver behind made no attempt to overtake and appeared to be content to keep at a distance of twenty-five yards or so. This was definitely alarming.
He estimated that he was doing a little over forty miles an hour at the outside, although from the way his machine was heaving and rolling her speed might well have been nearing three figures. Cautiously he slackened speed a trifle. The car behind slowed also and at the same time the death-rattle in his own back axle increased noticeably.
A smile of pure amusement twisted the mouth of the thin man in the oilskins. This was so disastrous that it was ridiculous. This was attempted cat burglary on roller-skates. The odds against him were immeasurably too great. He had no chance even to run for it in these colossal boots.
A side turning yawning in the darkness on his left decided him and he swung round into it for a final spurt. The driver behind him overshot the corner and a flicker of hope flashed through his mind, but before he had reached the next road junction the following car was back on his trail again.
The open country took him by surprise. The hospital must have been nearer the outskirts of the town than he had imagined. It was coming now, he supposed as he drove down a tunnel of bare trees into the lonely darkness beyond. They must make their arrest at any moment now, and he prepared himself for them to shoot past him and stop. But meanwhile there seemed no point in pulling up himself and he continued on through deeply wooded country with his silent attendant just behind him.
As the minutes passed his resignation gave place to nervous irritation and he drove squarely in the middle of the road. Whenever a convenient turning presented itself he took it, but always his companion followed him. If he eluded the car for a moment or so by some adroit piece of driving, invariably it put on speed and caught up with him again.
Excerpted from "Traitor's Purse"
Copyright © 1941 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.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Just discovered Albert Campion and read the first 14 books over a couple of weeks. This was my favorite. Talk about plot twists, cliff hangers, and page turning suspense! Unusual glimpse into Mr. Campion's own romantic side as well. Definitely a keeper.
A man wakes up in a hospital. He knows it's a hospital, but he can't remember how he got there, where the hospital is, or who he is. Then he overhears a nurse speaking with a policeman about someone who's going to be arrested for murder.The man escapes the hospital, only to be faced with trouble all along the way. The man is Albert Campion, and although he can't remember anything, he does find out that the police are counting on him to stop an enemy from ruining the country. And he only has 3 days to stop it.
Truthfully I didn't like this one as much as others have liked it but that's okay. Once I started reading it, I felt muddled in the head, but then again, in this installment our hero Albert Campion wakes up in a hospital with amnesia and is foggy, so I guess I was right there along with him.After waking with amnesia, he remembers that there's something vital he must do, but all he can think of is the number 15. With Amanda by his side, he tries to reconstruct what it is that depends on his intervention, but it seems hopeless.A good read, but really, imho, not as good as some of the ones preceding.
Brilliant, brilliant book. Set in the early 1940s Albert Campion is trying to foil a plot that will have a catastrophic effect on Britain. The only problem is he's lost his memory and can't remember a thing about it. The plot is slowly revealed as he works out who is friend and who is foe and what is going on, all the while trying to hide the fact that he can't remember anything.
In this one Campion has suffered a concussion and amnesia, and spends the first half of the book trying to remember who he is, and what disaster he must prevent, and what "number 15" means. It's deep in WWII, with spies and double agents suspected everywhere. The book is so deeply immersed in that particular time and place that it is somewhat difficult to follow the logic and the desperate stress and fear in the atmosphere. This one doesn't stand the test of time as well as the rest of the Campion series, but still an interesting suspense story.
There is something so delightful about a really good Margery Allingham Mystery. She is one of the best at complicated plots and so very English. This story was published in 1941 and has complex characters, murder and enemy agents. It also has more of Amanda and romance if you are familiar with the Allingham Series. Albert Campion wakes up in a Hospital with total amnesia. The thing that is driving him is his mission. It is terribly important and very secret. During this time he has to "act normal" even among his dearest which includes Amanda and Lugg, his Servant. The problem is he can't remember anything, including the mission. He is afraid that he has killed a policeman and that the force is after him. Albert escapes from the hospital and ends up riding with Amanda and a guest- who will soon be murdered. Amanda and he are staying at a Place called the Institute he found out. She has been following him...but how does it all tie in? Why the murder? The texture of the first half of the book, at least, has Albert Campion sick and working in the dark. But it is a finely-drawn wording that has him discovering his friends and enemies in a new light. Allingham, is a master at leading you through a mosaic of word patterns holding it tense and fine in parts. She also has the ability to make you feel that you are at a golden time of the mystery and privy to the well-educated class of Great Britain. I always feel I have read a Master when I finish. If you enjoy Sayers and Christie then you should enjoy Allingham and in the words of Amanda,"Be gone across the raging tide"