The Mind Readers, Margery Allingham
The Mind Readers, Margery Allingham (1965)
Review by Adam Roberts
Allingham is famous as (of course) a crime writer; and it so happens that I’ve read a fair few of her Campion titles. I’d been aware for a while that she wrote a late career science fiction, or sort-of science fiction, novel, but hadn’t gotten around to checking it out. Well, the time came; and so I read it. I out-checked it. It got checked over. And out.
Verdict: it’s a strange novel, in good and bad ways. To read it as an Albert Campion novel (which it is; in the sense that he’s in it, although he never feel essential to it) is inevitably to compare it with earlier, better Campion tales and be struck by its creaky anachronisms and paper-thin mystery plotting. The first of these two problems is especially debilitating, I think. The story is set in the 1960s, and hinges on an item of miniaturised technological cleverness that magnifies and directs telepathic abilities; but apart from the occasional reference to televisions and The Cold War the feel of the novel is solidly 1930s in tone, dialogue, class-attitudes and, well, cosiness.
Most of the story happens in London, with two off-stage centres of action: a mysterious ‘island’ off the coast someplace, where scientific research into the possibilities of telepathy has been ongoing, and a famous English prep school where one of Campion’s nephews has been accused of cheating on his exam. He wasn’t cheating, or not in the conventional sense – he and his brother are telepaths, their skill aided by the pill-sized ‘Iggy’ tubes taped to their wrist or neck, and that’s how Eddie, or was it Sam, I forget, learned that the following day’s exam was going to be about ‘Horatius at the Bridge’. Anyhow, the government hush-up this scandal so as not to draw attention to the telepathy thing, or perhaps to cover up the fact that they’ve been schoolboys as guinea-pigs (again: I’m honestly not sure), and the boys come to London to stay with Campion and his wife. At Liverpool Street Station they are almost kidnapped, and Campion – apparently now employed in a semi-official though unpaid capacity by MI6, or something – looks into it.
The mystery, though, doesn’t take us very far. In her glory days Allingham was capable of constructing a properly intricate and absorbing puzzle-box textual logic. This, though, is the last novel she completed on her own before dying – cancer – in her early 60s (her husband completed subsequently one remaining unfinished manuscript, and then wrote a couple more Campion novels), and it feels underworked. Who tried to kidnap the boys? Sinister Forces of an Enemy Power. Who drugged one of the junior scientists at the Island and then left him in a room with the gas fire on but unlit, as if to try and suffocate him – only to leave the doors and windows open, so that the victim was discovered long before he died? This mystery is introduced at the quarter-point of the novel and, weirdly, tied-off at the halfway point – it turns out that one of the senior scientists at the facility was worried that his junior colleague might be about to overtake him. In order to keep him on staff – because he was making valuable contributions to the research – yet simultaneously stymie his chances of promotions, said senior scientist staged this half-hearted gassing, to make it look as though the junior chap was suicidal, hence mentally unstable, hence unpromoteable. Mystery-plotting things that make you go: hmm?
The senior scientist who staged the mock-attempted-suicide, and then stole the Iggy-tubes with a view to maybe selling it to the Soviets, or maybe just investigating them non-treacherously on his own terms—once again it’s not clear—turns up dead. He was killed, put in the boot of a car, transferred into the back of a stranger’s car to dispose of the body; but this stranger, instead of alerting the police, moved the body into the back of a van at a service station. Wha? Said van then got driven north by its innocent drivers, and co-incidentally happened to be involved in a large traffic accident. Only then did the middle, innocent-of-murder (but guilty of helping cover one up) driver go to the police to report that he’d moved the body. It’s all very strange, and takes the wind out of the narrative sails. At the very end Allingham pulls her finger out for a fairly exciting climax on the island, a tense stand-off between the elderly, feeble Campion and a younger, trained killer ready to dispose of him quickly and untraceably. But as a mystery-thriller there’s something missing in this novel.
The two schoolboys are oddly written, too: the fact that they are period pieces (samples of a now Dodo-like vanished species, the slightly precocious upper-class prep-school schoolboy) notwithstanding. Neither of them come alive in any meaningful, fictive sense, mostly because of the über-Richmal-Cromton mannered awkwardness of the way they speak and act. I might add: that could have been good thing—it could have added an estranging twang to the whole. But somehow it doesn’t. ‘Estrangement’ in the genre sense of the word isn’t Allingham’s game.
The ‘Iggy tubes’ work because they are powered by ‘carbonized Nipponanium’, a new element discovered in Japan and hence so-named. This also has a weirdly 1930s vibe, a gesture in the directions of ‘scientific plausibility’ so half-hearted as to be almost endearing (it reminds me of my favourite line from the old Flash Gordon serials, spoken by a panicking Dr Zarkhov: “he’s been infected with radioactivity! He’ll descend to the level of a brute!”) But then again, Allingham’s Iggy Tubes (a terrible name, by the way, for a piece of tech) are not offered to the reader as serious-minded attempts to extrapolate current technology, They’re a mystery McGuffin tinged faintly with social satire. But what’s really interesting about them is the way they touch in interesting ways on what Allingham does. They are, after all, a symbolic externalisation of the principle of absolute transparency; and to a writer whose whole process relies upon a strategy opacity, a playful withholding of revelation, a valorisation of the secret and the mystery, such a principle would be death.
Allingham was, in many ways, sui generis. A clever and playful novelist, always lively, usually witty and capable at her best of that truly unfakeable literary quality, charm. But in many ways, and despite the superficial fit of her imagination to the puzzle-mystery mode (and despite, moreover, her reputation as one of the giants of Golden Age detective writing), she isn’t terribly well suited to her chosen idiom. I think this is because she really can’t do menace. Her villains tend to be either narrow-minded misguided posh types, or else proletarian professional thieves and (as here) assassins who take a workmanlike pride in their labour. (Her working class characters are, without exception, grotesque sub-Dickensian caricatures too, but that’s not my main point). People talk about Tiger in the Smoke as Allingham’s masterpiece, and it’s not a coincidence that it’s her only novel to centre on what we would nowadays call ‘a sociopath’. Allingham specifically wrote the book in order to put on page a portrait of ‘pure evil’ in the titular and improbably-named Jack Havoc. But he’s a milquetoast sort of psycho, is our Jack: at the final hurdle he is touched by the innate godly goodness of a priest and, given the chance to save his skin and have a bit of fun murdering the bibbety-bopperty heroine, he fluffs it. You don’t see Hannibal falling down at that sort of hurdle.
That doesn’t necessarily matter; and at her best Allingham comes within spitting distance (though we can be honest: no closer) of being the ‘Wodehouse with murders and mystery’ that some of her supporters say she is. Not here, though. Her two telepathic schoolchildren had, in truth, been gazumped by Wyndham’s Midwich Cuckoos, published eight years previously. There’s certainly no uncanny eeriness about Allingham’s two mind-reading schoolboys, and I’d say there ought to be. Indeed, the denouement relies upon them both acting like mature and responsible adults to neutralise the potential threat of the very technology that makes them mark-worthy in the first place.
I’m concentrating on negatives, when I should be accentuating the positives. There certainly are good things about this novel, I think. What Allingham does best at her best is a kind of an ingenious and playfully morbid intricacy, a surface glitter that plays cleverly both within and in a more meta sense with the conventions of her genre. I write in some spoilerish detail about Police at the Funeral (1931) elsewhere.
What I like about that novel is the way it takes the limitation of its mode, its airless and artificial ‘puzzle’ idiom, and makes a positive feature of it. Campion comes into a hell-ish closed network aristocratic family whose members are being bumped off one after the other. The murderer is inside the family, of course; but all the murderer does is make manifest the mortal logic of this particular kind of unhappy-family intra-dynamic. I quote myself:
The fact that this solution is so involuted, that Allingham portrays the family as a stagnant, closed circle from which and contained within which death operates, gives the book the superbly claustrophobic feel, despite its antic and sometimes strained touches of melodramatic gaiety.
There’s a whisper of something similar about The Mind Readers. The threat attendant to the stealing of the Iggy Tube is not that a super-villain will use this technology to take over the world, but something more small-scale and individual: that an unscrupulous individual will use them to pry and snoop, perhaps to nudge behaviour; something uncomfortable but still just this side of actual violation. That the notionally main character here is Albert Campion, one of the most blandly opaque detectives ever written, throws this into an intriguing sort of relief. What, after all, would the larger implications of a functioning telepathic technology be? Would it be world-shaking? Or would it join the teeming ranks of all our other many little technological advancements and gadgets? The Iggy tube conveys moods (‘feels’ the schoolboys call these) and sometimes content, but it’s no iPhone. On the other hand, the experience of so many surrounding people’s moods and thoughts is described as overwhelming for the adults who try it; oppressive and even stifling. Idiots and kids handle it better, because… well, I’m not sure what the ‘because’ is, here. Because kids are ‘naturally’ less attentive to other peoples’ emotions? It may be that Allingham isn’t so interested in self-absorption, or to put it more precisely she’s interested in the dangerous wedge-end of a new technology that erodes personal, affective space—and that, it turns out, was a pretty prescient future-fear for 1965.
This review originally appeared on Sibilant Fricative.