All Things Mysterious Volume Thirty-Six
Appreciating Margery Allingham
Margery Allingham (1904-1966, Great Britain) was a born writer. You know the type--writing stories as soon as they learned to print words on paper, and having a burning, not-to-be-denied desire to tell tales for life.
That’s pretty much the type of person you’d expect to have written and published a novel while she was still in her teens, no?
Of course it helped that both of her parents were writers, father Herbert was a journalist before he turned to pulp fiction, and mother Emily wrote short stories, occasionally selling them to magazines. Auntie Maud Hughes founded and ran Picture Show, a movie magazine, and it was here that young Margery made her debut as a professional writer at the age of eight. The Golden Age of Mysteries ran roughly between the two World Wars, say from 1920 through 1950. During this time, several writers, including Margery Allingham, brought the detective story in from the fringes of the world of letters, adding a maturity to the ongoing evolution of the genre. In creating the unassuming detective Albert Campion, Allingham allowed the character to mature, going from a self-described ‘silly ass’ to a more thoughtful, mature veteran of the intelligence service four decades later.
Perhaps paradoxically, Margery Allingham viewed mystery writing as almost formulaic, with four distinct aspects to each story: A Killing, A Mystery, An Enquiry, and A Conclusion. In a way this was the best of both worlds, for within those parameters the author felt free to invent and create. So the ‘four walls’ of a good mystery were simultaneously limiting and freeing; limiting because of the necessary elements to formulate a coherent story, and freeing because there was still plenty of room to maneuver her characters as she chose.
And she chose to introduce Albert Campion in the 1929 novel The Crime at Black Dudley. Apparently the author originally intended to have George Abbershaw, the pathologist, as the main man, but Campion, a bit player, proved the more interesting character and it is he that anchored nineteen novels, one having been completed by Allingham’s widower, Phillip Youngman Carter, and two written by him alone. After the success of Black Dudley, her American publisher, Doubleday, strongly encouraged the continued development of Campion’s character, and it looks like they were right!
Allegedly a parody of Lord Peter Wimsey, Campion took on his own identity of a nondescript, unassuming man. While the bulk of the adventures are not traditional mysteries in the sense of following an investigation into a crime, Allingham strikes a rich vein of savvy in continuing a character as she has Campion slowly age and evolve. He has unrequited loves, marries, has a son, serves in the intelligence service during WWII, and otherwise breaks out of the ‘same-old’ mode that afflicts many other series. One of the most popular Campion novels is The Tiger In the Smoke, cited by J.K. Rowling as her favorite crime novel. The Tiger is the murderer Jack Havoc and the Smoke is the perpetually fog-bound city of London, which is nearly its own character in the book.
In an effort to overcome a stammer, Allingham took classes in speech and drama at Regent Street Polytechnic. There she met a charming gent named Philip Youngman Carter. They got hitched in 1927. In addition to her career as a novelist, she wrote a handful of plays, one of which was called Without Being Naturally Qualified, which took its title from a phrase of George Bernard Shaw’s. She sent the Irish author a copy and typically, he returned it with detailed notes!
But none of her plays set the world on fire, and she returned to the simultaneous comfort and unease of mystery writing. The paradox of crime fiction, she felt, was that it was ‘at once a prison and a refuge’ to a writer confident in her abilities but unsure as to in which direction to take them.
Economic necessity compelled her to branch out; today we expect the authors of popular mystery series to make a nice living at it, but such was not the case all that often during the Golden Age. Allingham wrote stories serialized in the newspapers; another serial for the Strand Magazine; and continued to contribute to her aunt’s magazines. She referred to her work as bifurcated into ‘right-hand writing,' for pleasure and creative satisfaction and her ‘left-hand writing,’ for exposure and money.
The 1930s may fairly be said to be Margery Allingham’s peak years, publishing nine novels during that time. In the first of these, Midnight Mile, Campion is promoted from incidental character to star and two of his sidekicks are introduced, the big lug Lugg and the cop Oates, both of whom would recur for the remainder of the series. The former is one of Allingham’s only characters not to age through the years and serves as some much-needed comic relief. In Sweet Danger we meet Amanda Fitton, a lass of seventeen who would serve as Campion’s anchor and eventually his wife. It’s one of the more lighthearted and humorous books in the series, and many fans believe this kind of whimsy is the best of Allingham’s writing. Strangely, however, it’s commonly agreed that Tiger In the Smoke is her best work even though it’s much the darkest of all her novels. Allingham’s own personal favorite was The Beckoning Lady, published in 1955, and which contains several autobiographical elements.
The postwar years led to a significant reduction in the rate of output for the author; 1928-1941 saw thirteen novels published while 1945-1968, only eight.
Upon her passing in 1966, sixty-four short stories, two novellas, and by this writer’s count, 28 novels comprised Margery Allingham’s body of work, so there really should be something for every mystery fan’s desire. If you haven’t yet had an opportunity to enjoy one of the mainstays of the Golden Age of Crime Fiction, what a treat awaits you!
For a start, try some of these:
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