This book includes two tales, Wanted: Someone Innocent, and Last Act:
Wanted: Someone Innocent
In this first story, we meet the immediately appealing Miss Gillian Brayton, just twenty years old, and a recent graduate of Totham Abbey, “School for the Daughters of Gentlemen.” Gillian was orphaned when her parents were lost at sea in the Queen Adelaide disaster, but received her first-class education courtesy of her Uncle Grey, a sweet, aristocratic old gentlemen now deceased. Gillian is left with her sterling education and little else, as sadly Uncle Grey’s investments had failed before his demise.
Gillian has found employment with milliner Madame Clothilde. When Gillian receives an invitation to return to her alma mater, Madame encourages Gillian to go. Madame also insists that Gillian wear an outrageously inappropriate French hat; she is expected to sell orders to her former schoolmates.
It doesn’t look good for Gillian, but she goes. To her considerable surprise, she is greeted with great enthusiasm by Rita Fayre, a slightly older girl Gillian had barely known. Furthermore, Rita insists she wants to employ Gillian at her home right away. For Gillian, it all seems too good to be true, and her suspicions prove correct. Gillian finds herself largely ignored and snubbed. She meets a mysterious man who she subsequently learns is Rita’s husband. Just when Gillian is thoroughly mystified by it all, Rita is found dead. Now it is up to Gillian to find her way out of this mess.
This story is told with great charm, lovely descriptions and notable characters.
This second story is quite a departure from the first. One similarity between the two stories is the appeal of the central character, a charming young woman in both instances. In Last Act we meet Margot Robert, a 24-year-old French actress of great beauty.
We enter a world of theatrical characters dominated by the larger-than-life Zoff, a very wealthy and vastly temperamental woman who became a legend on the European stage. Zoff has completely taken over the home of Sir Kit, where Margot has been invited to stay. She is welcomed first by Zoff’s faithful Genevieve. It turns out that we have another orphan in this central character, as Margot was raised by Genevieve and Zoff and is an heir to Zoff’s considerable fortune, along with Zoff’s two grandsons. But one of those grandsons, Denis, is long out of favor with Zoff and is rumored to be disinherited. Just when circumstances are becoming particularly strained, Zoff is found dead in her room. It is not clear whether the death is one of natural causes or not. The residents are considered as possible suspects, but one by one seem cleared of suspicion. How, then, did Zoff come to die? We are led to a brilliant conclusion.
Again, Allingham is a master of storytelling, description, and characterization. It seems to me her writing carries a kind of organic quality, in that the work seems to have just grown complete. One can’t imagine changing, or adding, anything; one is never aware of the effort involved, just filled with admiration. The story simply unfolds and we are led step by step through the events and the surroundings.
In this instance, we have a bonus: there is a cleverness afoot that reminded me of another Golden Age writer, Agatha Christie. Indeed, the denouement rivals Christie at her craftiest. Allingham never disappoints!