It was thanks to the generosity of another fan of Margery Allingham that I was able to read more of her work, including some titles I was previously unaware of. Not only was it clearer that the picture I had formed of her development was pretty accurate, but I also found her to have been a highly talented writer of short stories, many in the vein of EA Poe’s Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque of 1839. The ‘English Queen of Crime’ tag hid her light under a bushel.
Margery Allingham began her writing career in what Americans call the pulp magazines, periodicals devoted to genre fiction such as adventure, romance and mysteries, and produced stories from early in the 1920s, eventually rising to be a regular contributor to the Strand Magazine. Probably the most famous contributor to the Strand was Arthur Conan Doyle, whose Sherlock Holmes novels and stories appeared from the 1890s through to the late 1920s, and influenced a whole generation of writers, including Allingham. Doyle himself said his creation of Sherlock Holmes came from the combination of the methods and physique of a medical lecturer he knew in Edinburgh, Dr Joseph Bell, and the ‘ratiocination’ of EA Poe’s detective C Auguste Dupin.
Poe invented the detective in 1837, the skilled and alert individual who solves crime by a mixture of observation, logic and intuition. The Metropolitan Police Force in London dates from the 1830s, and soon had its own detective division, yet under the influence of Poe and Doyle writers at first ignored what became known as police procedural stories in favour of the amateur sleuth. Thanks to Doyle and many other writers, a characteristic of the amateur sleuth was his social class, usually aristocratic, even a royal.
So the pseudonymous Mr Albert Campion made his appearance, a scion of royalty and more than reminiscent of Baroness Orczy’s creation Sir Percy Blakeney, the Scarlet Pimpernel, popular from 1904 onwards (Orczy also invented the female detective, Lady Molly of Scotland Yard). Another writer who comes to mind when looking at Allingham’s early work is Dorothy Sayers, and her scion of royalty, Lord Peter Wimsey. Both Wimsey and Campion hide their considerable intelligence under the disguise of a PG Wodehouse society buffoon like Bertie Wooster, as did the Scarlet Pimpernel.
The first half dozen Campion books follow this pattern, though from the start Allingham looked for a wider palette than the detective story, and included many adventure stories and tales of espionage in her output. Then, from the 1930s she began a series of stories based on the delineation and interaction of a collection of eccentric characters, and this became the main point of her books. There are mysteries to be solved in Police at the Funeral (1931), Dancers in Mourning (1937), another tale of the eccentric Faraday family, or The Fashion in Shrouds (1938), yet they are strangely underemphasised in favour of the superb characterisation. Mr Campion’s entourage, his valet Magersfontein Lugg, and his police associates Stanislaus Oates and Charlie Luke, become characters in their own right, and Campion remains, as he intended, in the background.
Perhaps under the influence of Sayers, Allingham next shows Campion meeting and marrying his wife and having a family, and this blending of genres, soap opera and detection, is as unsuccessful for Allingham as it was for Sayers, all a bit hothouse and unreal. I read and loved Gaudy Night but have never been able to reread it. In Allingham’s Black Plumes (1940), a book I had always before missed reading, I found a perfect and gripping blend of romance story and detection, but it was a one of a kind style, reverted to only in a few novella length stories.
Starting with More Work for the Undertaker (1949) and continuing with Tiger in the Smoke (1952), Hide My Eyes (1958) and The China Governess (1962), Allingham embarked on a new (to her) type of fiction, what is sometimes referred to as ‘psychological’, what Georges Simenon called romans dur, in which the mind of the protagonist, usually the criminal, is the real subject, the crime and its solution merely the setting. Perhaps Allingham was influenced by the ‘hard boiled’ fiction of Raymond Chandler which revolutionised crime fiction in the 1940s.
By this time Allingham could be described as a peer to these writers. As well, her skill in creating settings for her stories had blossomed, and she increasingly showed a knowledge of London and its byways equal to that shown by Charles Dickens, an author she also resembles in her skilful depiction of caricatured and eccentric individuals, and in her mastery of language and dialect. The village vicarage and the landed gentry had been left behind, as had the murder mystery that resembled a crossword puzzle. The eight novels I mention I think would repay anyone’s time should they not be familiar with Allingham’s work.
But there is more to discover. Margery Allingham wrote 26 novels, including three thrillers as Maxwell March and two semi autobiographical works. She also published 10 volumes of stories and short novellas. Some of these volumes were reprints with the same or similar contents. For the stories It Didn’t Work Out and The Mistress Of the House you need the 1939 edition of Mr Campion and Others, and for the stories The Crimson Letters and The Magic Hat you need the 1947 title The Casebook of Mr Campion, both currently unavailable. Otherwise, the remaining 67 stories can be found in the available seven volumes of short fiction.
Three of these are collections of novella length fiction, short novels under 100 pages. There was an early Campion, The Case of the Late Pig (1937), and a collection of two tales marketed as Deadly Duo or Take Two at Bedtime (1949), depending if you bought it in England or America. The stories were Wanted: Someone Innocent, a suspense romance in which the suspense was handled more successfully than the romance, but still an absorbing tale; and Last Act, a superb evocation of one of her greatest eccentrics, Mathilde Zoffany, or Zoff, a larger than life French actress who outsmarts herself when intriguing against one of her relatives. The history, the atmosphere, the surrounding characters, are all evoked with such skill in this story it must surely be one of Allingham’s best, even though the solution to the mystery is a little unconvincing (as they often are in many crime stories). This was followed in 1954 by No Love Lost, two romance stories; The Patient at Peacock Hall and Safer Than Love.
The real discovery (for me) were the short stories, where Allingham is revealed as in my view a major and unrecognised talent. There’s the early tales, Mr Campion and Others (1939, reprinted with different content 1950), which will appeal to all lovers of the detective story, highly entertaining tales in which Mr Campion so often points out the obvious, which no-one else had noticed. Mainly set in the 1920s among the British upper classes, many of whom are Campion’s relatives apparently, and so a bit dated, but entertaining none the less.
Most of the rest of Allingham’s short fiction has been published in three posthumous collections: The Allingham Casebook (1969); The Allingham Minibus (1973); and The Return of Mr Campion (1989). The Casebook is a volume of crime stores, half of them Campion stories. They vary in quality, and overall I found about half the collection were entertaining, with a few real clangers.
The Minibus was the real discovery among the shorter fiction. Three or four crime stories, mostly Campion ones, and the rest ghost or fantasy stories, some of the best of her stories, an indication that Allingham might have done much more with her fiction had Campion not proved so popular. Highlights of the volume were She Heard It On the Radio, an eerie and heart warming story of loneliness and love; The Correspondents, a story of one man’s fantasy life; and Publicity, an evocation of repertory theatre life and the dangers of fame. Here is Allingham doing something other than crime fiction, and doing it superbly. There are also a few disappointments in the volume, including an overlong heist story, A Quarter of a Million, which describes the scene of the crime in excessive and boring detail.
The third volume The Return of Mr Campion (1989), is one of those volumes that editors bring out of what they have found in the author’s desk, archives, and it must be suspected, wastebasket. Happens to anyone who achieves fame: suddenly their laundry list is worth publishing, with commentary. There’s some Campion stories Allingham didn’t want published, a radio talk on Campion and a reminiscence on Lugg, and her very first published story, a long supernatural tale featuring an evil Oriental villain and dangerous and evil ghosts: but it all goes right at the end. The volume is a curiosity and no more.
When I first wrote on Allingham back in 2009 I wasn’t sure where to file her. Golden Age mystery writer, social novelist of the 30s, or realist crime school of the 50s and 60s? The truth is she wrote well in all those fields, and was a fine short story writer as well. I suppose lovers of detection fiction will stick to the fantasy world of the 20s British upper class where Campion began, and those who prefer crime novels of the whydunit rather than the whodunit variety will read Allingham’s later fiction, while the middle period books of artists and actors depicted with such fidelity to background and character, along with the short stories, will be little read.
At least I know there’s at least one other fan besides me who has read the lot. If anyone who reads this piece knows the Campion stories I hope it encourages them to read more of her other work. Margery Allingham may have come to resemble Aunt Dahlia in later life in appearance and temperament, but there was a hidden side to her, revealed in images of her younger self: and available to anyone who reads her books.
©2014 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.