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Mr Campion’s Coven by Mike Ripley – Review

April 26, 2021

UK, 1971. Strikes, flying pickets, and all manner of industrial strife dominate the news headlines. Northern Ireland is going up in flames, and flares are running down the legs of Britain’s long-haired youth. Not that all of this cultural and social change matters much to the aging Albert Campion. If you mentioned Glam Rock to the Toffish detective he’d probably think it was the title of an obscure geological journal. Nevertheless, this is the changing Britain of Mike Ripley’s brilliant series of Albert Campion novels, which have developed the much-loved character who first appeared in Margery Allingham’s The Crime at Black Dudley (1929).

Wicken, an Essex village where the yokels make the inhabitants of Summerisle look positively normal. The place is a treasure trove to Harvard student Mason Lowell Clay. He’s writing a thesis on a group of settlers who travelled from Wicken and landed in Harker’s Island, North Carolina. Campion is on hand to help him with his research, but the strange doings around Wicken have already lured Campion to the village. The noted actress Dame Jocasta Upcott’s yacht has run aground on a Wicken mudbank. Dame Jocasta wants Campion to find her missing dog Robespierre, whose disappearance concerns her far more than the yacht or the fact that the captain has been found dead. Campion has a mystery to unravel, but where do the answers lie? Is it a case of smuggling gone wrong, or a sinister tale of the clash between Christian and Pagan traditions?

Ripley’s novels have always had a great sense of locale and, as a former archaeologist, he knows this mud-splattered topography well. Essex is a bellwether among the Home Counties. It was key to the electoral success of Thatcher, Blair and now Boris. Thus, it is a perfect setting for a crime story grappling with the spiritual battle between covenanters and wicca pagans. A narrative best described as a cross between Deliverance and The Midwich Cuckoos. Emotional spoiler alert: Several pooches go missing in the course of the story, but dog-lovers need not worry, all of the canines fare better than the human characters in this novel or indeed, the real-life Robespierre. There is affection though in Ripley’s comic sketches of characters. I was fond of the haughty diva Dame Jocasta, and the boozy theatrical agent Maxim Berlins, a fine tribute to the great Marcel Berlins.

I don’t wish to overplay the darkness of the story, after all what is a Campion tale without lashings of wit. And Mr Campion’s Coven has wit in abundance. I found myself looking forward to the hour a day I’d put aside to read it, and rather like an indulgent cocktail hour, that sixty minutes was often extended.

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