Margery Allingham: a review

Could Margery Allingham have achieved something unique in her writing, a contemporary novel based on the structure of the detective story? I believe so.

I read Julia Jones’ biography of Margery Allingham recently and was impressed by her acumen in probing her subject’s psychological landscapes. The book is The Adventures of Margery Allingham (2nd edn Golden Duck, Essex 2009; 1st edn Margery Allingham: a Biography, the author then known as Julia Thorogood, Heinemann London 1991). Allingham’s inner life, as recounted by Julia Jones, really was adventurous, though outwardly she sat at her desk most of the time writing mystery stories.

Allingham was drawn to the theatre and was considered a good actress by her teachers but in her late teens a thyroid imbalance affected her health. Her weight increased steadily: a slender and striking 16 year old, she became an overweight 18 year old and decidedly fat by 21. She was told: “There are no fat actresses”.

Not much attention was taken by either Allingham or her doctors to this condition until later in life she developed associated psychological problems. Always a charismatic and inspiring personality, she became bipolar. The sexist laws of the period put her in a mental hospital and subjected her to shock treatment. The main result of this experience was to terrify Allingham about health issues, and towards the end of her life she fatally ignored a lump in one of her breasts until cancer had spread incurably throughout her body.

Julia Jones draws a vivid picture of Allingham, despite health and money problems, as a generous host and centre for a large group of dependants, including her husband. She accepted his infidelities and they developed a co-dependancy which lasted to their deaths.

Allingham also suffered under the unfair tax laws of the time which demanded payment for tax on income, in advance, based on the previous years’, quite unrealistically. The more she worked to pay off debts and to meet the cost of her houseful of dependants, the higher the tax bill, up to 90% of her income. Though an extremely popular writer, this situation didn’t help her creative attempts to write the fiction she wanted to.

The biography brought to my attention the great variety of genres Allingham attempted, something I was but dimly aware of before I read it. Somehow the ‘Queen of Crime’ tag, or comparisons with ‘Golden Age’ writers like Agatha Christie or Ngaio Marsh seemed the facile generalisations they really were. It’s this variety I want to explore in this article.

Thrillers

The term for adventure and mystery stories of no great subtlety, as practised by authors like Edgar Wallace or Leslie Charteris. Pace was more important than probability, chases more prominent than deductions.

Allingham’s father Herbert made a living writing boys’ adventure stories for the British pulps, and sometimes his income was not enough to support the family. Margery and her mother Emily were then drafted into the story writing mill, and Margery, who had written stories since she was a child, by her mid teens was writing Sexton Blakes with the best of them. She learned her craft, and awareness of the marketplace for her work, by the time she was fifteen.

Books of this type Allingham wrote under her own name included her first mystery story, The White Cottage Mystery (1928), not quite as good as Agatha’s first; The Crime at Black Dudley (1929), which included a minor criminal called Albert Campion; and Mystery Mile (1930), wherein Campion is featured as a sleuth, though seen also as a figure of fun, accompanied by a character called Magersfontein Lugg, later to play a major role in Allingham’s books.

Look to the Lady of 1931 (The Gryth Chalice Mystery in the USA) mixes detection (by Campion) wth the occult, another of Allingham’s interests. The book sold ten times as many copies in America as it did in England, where sales had so far not exceeded 1,000 copies of each title. Sweet Danger (1933) was an attempt to cash in on Allingham’s American popularity (called Kingdom of Death, or The Fear Sign in the USA) and succeeded. It also introduced the character of Campion’s wife to be, Amanda. In the same vein were the thrillers Other Man’s Danger (1933); Rogue’s Holiday (1935); and The Shadow in the House (1936), all for the lucrative American periodical market, published in book form under the pseudonym Maxwell March. Traitor’s Purse (1941), also written for the American market, was a war time thriller in which Campion foils an evil traitor, and Coroner’s Pidgin (1945) or Pearls Before Swine is set in the same era, both period bound.

The Beckoning Lady (1955) was dashed off by Allingham in response to fans’ request for a traditional ‘whodunnit’. Apparently it also contains a lot of autobiographical references.

All these books show Allingham’s interest in character and landscape and showcase her satirical gifts, present in all her writing; all are competent, entertaining thrillers.

Romance

Allingham’s work was popular in America and she also wrote for the women’s periodical market there, first a serial published as Black Plumes (1940), then four novellas or short novels, published in two collections, Deadly Duo, or Take Two at Bedtime (1950), which included one of her best stories, “Last Act”; and No Love Lost (1954). These wedded romance to a suspense plot in the manner of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Skilful if commercial romance stories.

The occult

Allingham had spiritual beliefs somewhere between conventional C of E and spiritualism. Her very first book, in the mode of Treasure Island, was Blackerchief Dick (1923), reputedly the result of a seance, written when she was 18. She later disowned it.

Some of Allingham’s short fiction is available in two collections, The Allingham Casebook (1969), and The Allingham Minibus (1972). The best of these have a supernatural theme, such as “She Heard It On the Radio”, and suggest she might have excelled in the manner of Edgar Allen Poe had her detective stories not proven so popular.

The Mind Readers (1965) was Allingham’s last completed novel. I don’t think it successful.

Historical fiction

Dance of the Years (1943) or The Galantrys, is set in Victorian England and the story is based on Allingham’s own family. There are apparently signs the book was not finished but merely ‘wound up’ and set aside for more commercial writing.

Autobiography

Green Corn (1923), unpublished, is a story based on Allingham’s experience in acting school and on the people she knew there. She worked on it for some time but was never happy with it. It too was set aside for more commercial work.

Non fiction

The Oaken Heart (1941) is Allingham’s story of her war time experiences, and expands to tell the story of those who endured the Blitz and the absence of their family members fighting overseas. It was a best seller when published but is considered dated now.

Drama

Allingham left college determined to be an actress. She acted and wrote for the theatre until needing to earn money for her family, turning instead to detective fiction. Dido and Aeneas (1921) was a college play which she wrote and starred in. Other plays include The Darings of the Red Rose (1995) and Room to Let (1999).

Novels

The traditional mainstream novel relies on the structure of the romance or love story, but attains realism through detail of landscape and depth of characterisation. A separate tradition is that of the outsider, considered ‘modern’ but going back to Cervantes, and including a lot of detective fiction, such as the work of Poe and Conan Doyle, as well as that of Joyce and Camus.

The novels of Allingham mentioned below use the structure of the detective story (rather than the romance) to explore milieu and character, and in the manner of Dickens. Like Dickens, Allingham creates ‘flat’ characters, but extremely colourful ones, in vividly drawn locales. These are also good mystery stories, and beautifully written.

Police at the Funeral (1931) sketches the Faraday family, headed by the imperious matriarch Caroline. Devastating criticism of upper class life is married to Holmesian deduction by Campion.

Death of a Ghost (1934) explores the art world, which Allingham knew well, in the persons of a famous painter John Lafcadio, and an eccentric art dealer, Max Fustian. Both satirical and ingenious.

Flowers for the Judge (1936) is about the conservative publishing house of Barnabas, so exactly described it is hard to believe it not an actual publishers. Campion studies the depths of character revealed by the stresses of a mistaken police prosecution.

Dancers in Mourning (1937) tells the story of Jimmy Sutane, a musical comedy star. Jimmy works hard, but someone has it in for him, and things start to go wrong. Campion falls in love with his wife, and the murder mystery takes a backseat to a study of the personalities and frictions of Jimmy’s group.

The Fashion in Shrouds (1938) exists in an original version, and a later, much shorter one. It is set in the fashion industry and concerns two women striving to both have a career and to compete over the same man. A novel of contemporary manners and a detective story.

More Work for the Undertaker (1948) explores a Dickensian segment of old London and its masters, the Palinode family (the word means a retracted view, and Allingham has revisionist views on ‘kulchar’ here). The Palinodes think well of themselves despite their present poverty and are gently derided. The undertaker steals the show.

The Tiger in the Smoke (1952) is not a murder mystery: it attempts to show a conflict between good and evil,  how the indifference to massive loss of life which was one of the results of WWII can be combated by positive moral values. The serial killer Jack Havoc is not a figure of horror but a product of heredity and environment.  The book offers lots to consider on a second reading; on a first it’s very, very suspenseful.

Hide My Eyes (1958) or Tether’s End is another portrait of a killer, Allingham’s most realistic so far. It is also a reflection on misguided love, on how the desire to love can make a monster of its unsuitable recipient. Distant from her earlier work, Allingham here explores Patricia Highsmith territory, but much more sanely. The book is a powerful psychological study.

The China Governess (1963) has another of Allingham’s evocative impressions of old London. It is a parallel crime story, of a Victorian governess who murdered and a senseless violence threatening the happiness and identity of the hero of the present. The novel reaches out from the crime narrative to consider social issues of poverty and different views of culture. It is Allingham’s most complex novel, perhaps her best.

Achievement

Allingham started as a writer of pulp thrillers, and continued in that vein under her own name. Gradually she built up the skills to write believable novels, but was never wholly successful in that or other traditional genres. She turned to a combination of mystery story and novel, and wrote her most successful books in this hybrid form.

This has somewhat confused her critics and readers alike. She has a detective, Albert Campion, but treats him realistically. He was born in 1900, and ages as the time went on, marrying and having a family, and becoming elderly in the later books and not closely involved in the proceedings. Instead he is replaced by police detectives, Stanislaus Oates, later head of Scotland Yard, Chief Superintendent Yeo, and Divisional Detective Inspector Charlie Luke.

A third of Allingham’s work is in the mystery thriller genre and makes her one of the ‘Golden Age’s Queens of Crime’. Yet her mystery based novels mentioned here, with matter quite different from the mystery thriller, are a distinct and separate genre. They succeed both as novels and as mysteries, and this is her unique achievement as a fiction writer.

Lumping all Allingham’s work together as a ‘Queen of Crime’ and peer of Sayers, Christie, etc, misrepresents her, leading to reader confusion. Her books are not one sequence, Campion #1, Campion #2 etc, but the fruit of two distinct creative inspirations. Her thrillers may date, and gain a retro value. Her novels of milieu and character can be read and reread and grow more impressive each time.

More details on Allingham’s books are here: http://www.slightlybetterbooks.com/margeryallingham.html

©2017 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.

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3 thoughts on “Margery Allingham: a review

    1. I know the problem. Perhaps Dr Johnson might be a model. He never read any book through, yet was very learned. He would probably read the beginning and the end of a novel by Allingham, which defeats the idea of the mystery story. But perhaps he knew best. Try the first and last of the nine I mention for a taste of old London.

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