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Margery Allingham (1904-68) wrote stories about crime, which fact places her reputation somewhere in the wide ground between those of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Agatha Christie. But where precisely do we place her? She’s not quite a genre writer, not quite a ‘mainstream’ novelist: the critics can’t be snobbish about her, but they also find her hard to classify, as they also find Simenon.
Her readers either cavil at her abandonment of the conventions of the detective story genre, or find those conventions limiting in the tense psychological studies she eventually wrote. Allingham causes this confused reaction to her books by the way she evolved as a writer. She started out under the influence of Dorothy Sayers and her detective Peter Wimsey. As she developed, her intricately plotted books became more focused on settings and character than on crime. Her detective, Albert Campion, retreated to the background, and eventually detection played very little part in the stories, the focus being more on the exploration of colourful, larger than life characters, and minds warped under pressure.
One disconcerting quality of Allingham’s writing for lovers of detective fiction is her ambivalence to the detective story format. Her early books contain a lot of parody, Campion is seen at first as a figure of fun. In fact Allingham loved wordplay, and the books are filled with patter which expresses this. Though she made her living writing for the detective story market, and was capable of the requisite intricate plotting, in fact few of her books are straightforward detective stories. Her books were closer to thrillers, adventure stories in which the delineation of eccentric characters came to the fore, at the expense of the detection. Many readers who pick up one of her books expecting an agatha-christie-esque puzzle solved by the ‘little grey cells’ go away disappointed, which is a great pity.
As much of her output dates from the 30s and 40s, Allingham is routinely classified with those golden age ‘queens of crime’ Agatha Christie, Ngiao Marsh and Dorothy Sayers. In fact she bridges the gap between the puzzle mystery of these writers, the crime novel of Hammett and Chandler and the work of writers such as Georges Simenon and Patricia Highsmith. She also has one foot in the camp of social novelists of the between-the-wars period such as Aldous Huxley.
One thing is certain. She was a very good writer. She had a large vocabulary, and used it to precisely set the tone of the milieu she described. Her depiction of the settings of her books, whether that of musical comedy performers or publishers, is very convincing. She seems to have had an expert knowledge of London and its byways and brings the streets and their history to vivid life. And she became fascinated by the quirks of personality, often those developed in artistic circles. A S Byatt thinks she is the greatest detective story writer of them all, an opinion with which I agree, at least of British detective writers of her time to the present. Yet calling her a detective story writer is to misrepresent Allingham: detection is only part of her concerns in writing.
Allingham’s style does have weaknesses: she can be affected, her plotting can be arbitrary, her evocation of character over-elaborate, her description of setting too diffuse. On the other hand, she is frequently evocative of place, has quite an understanding of eccentric human nature and her prose can usually be enjoyed in itself.
I once owned a complete Margery Allingham collection until my library expanded and forced some titles to go elsewhere. Recently I stumbled on her works in ebook format and have been able to enjoy them all over again.
The first thing you notice about the books are the characters’ names: Max Fustian the art dealer, Jack Havoc the killer, Magersfontein Lugg the valet, Stanislaus Oates the policeman. These following titles are all five star Allingham books. Readers unfamiliar with her work might start with these. Reading her in series order can be disconcerting: sometimes she’s reminiscent of Wodehouse, sometimes of Chrome Yellow or Those Barren Leaves, sometimes reminds you of Hannibal Lector, as she shifts around the varieties of the genre.
Police at the Funeral (1931)
The imperious Caroline Faraday runs her house like a Victorian fiefdom, unconcerned with the fact that it’s 1931. Furniture and meals are heavy and elaborate, both motorcars and morning tea are forbidden on account of vulgarity. The Faraday children – now well into middle age – chafe at the restrictions, but with no money of their own, they respond primarily by quarreling amongst themselves. Their endless squabbling is tedious but nothing more until one of them turns up missing and then dead, followed shortly by his petulant, whining sister. Though neither will be much missed, decency demands that Caroline Faraday hire the nearly respectable Albert Campion to investigate their untimely ends. Unfortunately, what Mr. Campion discovers will force the modern world relentlessly into Mrs. Faraday’s stuffy Victorian parlor. A study in festering family relations.
Dancers in Mourning (1937)
“When Mr. William Faraday sat down to write his memoirs after fifty-eight years of blameless inactivity he found the work of inscribing the history of his life almost as tedious as living it had been, and so, possessing a natural invention coupled with a gift for locating the easier path, he began to prevaricate a little upon the second page, working up to downright lying on the sixth and subsequent folios.” Uncle William is back in this tale of malice and murder in London’s theatrical set. The setup is familiar, group of suspects gathered in country mansion, a murder is committed, one of the guests must be the criminal – except this is not a murder mystery, but a study in the theatrical temperament. Fascinating.
Tiger in the Smoke (1952)
“Tiger in the Smoke is the almost unbearably tense story of a homicidal maniac on the loose in fogbound London. Although her stock characters (Campion, Amanda, Lugg, Luke, et al) are all present, this story is utterly unlike Allingham’s other mysteries (only Tether’s End is even remotely similar). The villain, whose identity is known early on, is possibly the most terrifying in all of the classic British mystery genre” (Charles Warman). A novel that pits good against evil, this is a thriller cum horror story of enormous intensity.
The China Governess (1962)
Timothy Kinnit is rich, handsome and well-bred. He seems to have everything. Then, on the eve of his elopement, he learns that he was adopted, and he is desperate to know who he really is. Someone seems no less keen to stop him finding out. Violence, deception and death bedevil the post-war housing estate that has grown from the ashes of the notorious Turk Street Mile, and the shadow of a long-forgotten murder hangs over it all — until Luke and Campion are finally able to dispel the darkness.
Here’s an appreciation of Margery Allingham by Jane Stevenson: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2006/aug/19/fiction.shopping1
Blackkerchief Dick (1923)
The White Cottage Mystery (1928)
The Crime at Black Dudley (1929) (US: The Black Dudley Murder)
Mystery Mile (1930)
Look to the Lady (1931) (US: The Gyrth Chalice Mystery)
Police at the Funeral (1931)
Sweet Danger (1933) (US: Kingdom of Death/The Fear Sign)
Other Man’s Danger (1933) (as Maxwell March)
Death of a Ghost (1934)
Rogue’s Holiday (1935) (as Maxwell March)
Flowers for the Judge (1936) (US: Legacy in Blood)
The Shadow in the House (1936) (as Maxwell March)
Mr. Campion: Criminologist (1937) (short stories)
The Case of the Late Pig (1937)
Dancers in Mourning (1937) (US: Who Killed Chloe?)
The Fashion in Shrouds (1938)
Mr. Campion and Others (1939) (short stories)
Black Plumes (1940)
Traitor’s Purse (1941) (US: The Sabotage Murder Mystery)
The Oaken Heart (1941) (autobiographical)
Dance of the Years (1943) (aka The Galantrys)
Coroner’s Pidgin (1945) (US: Pearls Before Swine)
Wanted: Someone Innocent (1946) (short stories)
The Casebook of Mr Campion (1947) (short stories)
More Work for the Undertaker (1949)
Deadly Duo (1949) (UK: Take Two at Bedtime (1950)) (two novellas)
The Tiger in the Smoke (1952)
No Love Lost (1954) (two novellas)
The Beckoning Lady (1955) (US: The Estate of the Beckoning Lady)
Hide My Eyes (1958) (US: Tether’s End/Ten Were Missing)
The China Governess (1962)
The Mind Readers (1965)
Cargo of Eagles (1968) (completed by Philip Youngman Carter)
The Allingham Case-Book (1969) (short stories)
Mr. Campion’s Farthing (1969) (by Philip Youngman Carter)
Mr. Campion’s Falcon (1970) (by Philip Youngman Carter)
The Allingham Minibus (1973) (aka Mr. Campion’s Lucky Day) (short stories)
The Return of Mr. Campion (1989) (short stories)
The Darings of the Red Rose (1995) (originally an anonymous serial)
Room to Let: A Radio-Play (1999)
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