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Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Detectives of the Golden Age

I try to post a review of a new book everyday, I don't always succeed as life has a habit of getting in the way of this contribution to crime fiction.  Additionally, as many of you know I also produce a monthly newsletter for Mystery People members. This is circulated in e-zine format.  It contains news of Mystery People events, interviews, reports on mystery conferences, reviews of new books, and a competition. In the interest of producing a rounded publication I have also introduced a 'Forgotten Authors' page and a 'Golden Age of Detection' page. The latter has proved to be very popular generating many complimentary comments. So I have decided to make these articles available for anyone to read on this blog.  I will issue one a week until I catch up with all of the articles already contributed by members to earlier Mystery People issues, after which I will post an article monthly.  The first is by author Carol Westron and features Margery Allingham.
Lizzie Hayes

Margery Allingham (1904-1966)
by Carol Westron


Margery Allingham was born in Ealing, London, in 1904.  Her father and mother were cousins and both were writers, coming from a family with a long tradition of writing.  At the time of Allingham's birth, her father was editor of The Christian Globe and The New London Journal; her mother contributed short stories to women's magazines.  Her aunt also edited magazines.  Allingham earned her first writing fee when she was eight-years-old, for a story published in one of her aunt's magazines. When Allingham was a baby, her father gave up journalism to write pulp fiction, (exciting tales printed on cheap paper and sold at a remarkably low price.)  The family moved to a village on the edge of the Essex marshes. 
Allingham was educated first in Colchester and then at the Perse School for Girls in Cambridge.  She wrote throughout her childhood.  In 1920 she returned to London and studied drama and speech training at the Regent Street Polytechnic.  In this way she overcame the stammer that had troubled her throughout her childhood.  It was here she wrote a verse play, which was performed at St George's Hall and the Cripplegate Theatre.  Allingham played the leading role.  The scenery for the production was designed by Philip Youngman Carter, Allingham's future husband.

In 1923 Allingham wrote her first novel,
Blackkerchief Dick.  It was regarded as a very good first novel, although the subject matter was considered unusual for a young woman of nineteen.  It was about 17th Century pirates and Allingham claimed the idea had originated from seances in which long-dead pirates had communicated with her.  (Later, Philip Youngman Carter insisted that the story had not come from the supernatural but from Allingham's lively imagination.)

Throughout the 1920s Allingham worked hard writing stories for many magazines. Between 1923 and 1927 she attempted other books with more serious themes but these did not accord well with her natural wit and light-heartedness.

In 1927 Allingham wrote her first crime novel, The White Cottage Mystery, as a serial for the Daily Express.  It was published as a book in 1928 and it became clear that Allingham had discovered the genre that suited her
talents. Also in 1927 Allingham and Carter married.

In 1929 in The Crime at Black Dudley, Albert Campion makes his first appearance. Allingham had intended Campion to be a minor villain.  She said, she had meant him to be 'a mere muddying of the waters,' but she (and her editor) discovered he was a character they wished to develop. In The Crime at Black Dudley, Allingham introduces him in this way: 'His name is Albert Campion… he's quite inoffensive, just a silly ass.'  Allingham describes George Abbershaw, the intended hero of The Crime at Black Dudley, staring at 'the fresh-faced young man with the tow-coloured hair and the foolish, pale-blue eyes behind tortoiseshell-rimmed spectacles.'  It seems possible, even in those early chapters, that Allingham had a subconscious suspicion that Abbershaw, as a hero, was about to be replaced.

Albert Campion is an alias and his real name and background is never revealed, although it is made clear that he comes from a noble family and moves in the highest society as comfortably as he associates with villains and policemen. 

In the following thirty-five years, Allingham wrote another nineteen novels and a large number of short stories featuring Albert Campion, as well as other novels and novellas, and many short stories and articles.  In the 1930s the Campion novels were not lucrative enough to allow Allingham to abandon her 'bread and butter' writing for magazines. It is amusing to note that when Allingham wrote a series of Campion stories for Strand Magazine, Campion's scurrilous manservant, Lugg, was replaced by an anonymous and far more seemly manservant.   

Allingham used the house she and her husband kept in London for writing her magazine contributions but preferred the country when she was writing her novels.  She regarded herself as a countrywoman and in 1934 she and Carter bought D'Arcy House in Tolleston D'Arcy, Essex, which became their home for the rest of their lives. Philip Youngman Carter was deeply involved in his wife's writing.  He designed the dustcovers for many of Allingham's books, as he did for many other eminent writers of the time, including Dorothy L. Sayers.  Moresignificantly, when Allingham died of breast cancer in 1966, at the age of sixty-two, Carter completed the
Campion book she was working on, Cargo of Eagles, and then wrote two more Campion books before his own death a few years later.

The Albert Campion novels are extraordinarily diverse, the early ones: Mystery Mile (1930), Look to the Lady (1931) and Sweet Danger (1933) are all fast moving adventure stories, peopled by extraordinary characters and fantastic incidents.  Basically they are treasure hunts, with Campion and his companions trying to discover or
retrieve some valuable article that has been stolen or lost.  Later in her life, Allingham was critical of their lack of construction, but they are eminently readable. In Mystery Mile, Campion first becomes the central character. 
Despite his protective shield of vacuous amiability, his intelligence cannot be concealed and he is an eccentrically quixotic, knight-errant figure.  In Mystery Mile we are introduced to two of Campion's companions in adventure: the dependable, hard-working police detective, Stanislaus Oates, and Campion's manservant, the ex-burglar,Magersfontein Lugg.  Lugg must surely be Allingham's most extraordinary creation. Described as 'a hillock of a man with a big pallid face,' his basic Cockney speech is ornamented by extraordinary flourishes and his manner to his employer is totally lacking in respect.  The dialogue between Lugg and Campion is lively, funny and full of Lugg's complaints about their present circumstances and gloomy predictions about future disasters.  Theseexchanges show the depth of affection that lies between Lugg and Campion.  The most extraordinary thing about Lugg is that he alone does not significantly age, as Campion and his other companions do.

The fourth Campion novel,  Sweet Danger, is especially interesting.  It is a well-constructed novel, funny and fast-paced, with two distinct lines of action that merge neatly into one.  It is also the book that introduces AmandaFitton, the girl who, some years later, becomes Campion's wife.  'Amanda Fitton, eighteen next month, was at a stage of physical perfection seldom achieved at any age.  She was not very tall, slender almost to skinniness, with big honey-brown eyes, and an extraordinary mop of hair so red that it was remarkable in itself.  This was notauburn hair, nor yet carroty, but a blazing, flaming, and yet subtle colour that is as rare as it is beautiful.' Amanda is the younger daughter of an aristocratic but, at that time, impoverished family. Despite her beauty she has no interest in entering Society; she is a mechanic who later becomes an engineer.  In their first adventure together she appoints herself as Campion's lieutenant and, in later books, she is a stabilising influence, a yardstick of good sense, and an equal partner.

It is much later, in More Work for the Undertaker (1948) that Allingham introduces Charlie Luke, a young policeman with a 'pile-driver personality' and the habit of expressing himself not just with his voice but with his mobile, vivid expression and his extravagant hand gestures.  The spymaster L.C. (Elsie) Corkran first appears in Traitor's Purse (1941) but is more used by Philip Youngman Carter in Mr Campion's Farthing (1969) and Mr Campion's Falcon (1970) which he wrote after Allingham's death.

The range of the Campion novels varies widely from adventure stories to comedies of manners that include a
central crime story, such as The Fashion In Shrouds (1938.)

Traitor's Purse (1941) is a turning point for Albert Campion.  Britain is at War and he alone holds the key to save his country from invasion, but he has suffered a head injury and cannot remember anything.  Traitor's Purse is a terrifyingly intense novel in which only Lugg remains a pillar of good sense and solid comfort.  Campion emerges from it older and much less frivolous, and Amanda agrees to be his wife.

Allingham was intensely patriotic and Traitor's Purse was an attempt to convince her American readers to lobby to enter the War.  It was published in the same year as The Oaken Heart (1941), a thinly disguised description of life in D'Arcy House during the War. Essex was in danger from invasion across the North Sea and, while her husband was away on military service, Allingham was deeply involved in the war effort at home working on with Air Raid precautions, First Aid Stations and the housing of evacuees.  Her home was used as a military base and she was prepared to act as the local agent of a British Resistance Movement.  It is not surprising that Traitor's Purse has such a dark and fearful tone; it was written when the outcome of the War was very much in doubt andinvasion was considered imminent.


Tiger In the Smoke (1952) is often cited as Allingham's greatest novel.  In it she portrays the harm done by the War to young men who after it  knew no other way of life than violence.  This is a treasure hunt of a very different nature to the light-hearted earlier Campion adventures, as the Tiger, Jack Havoc, a vicious killer on the run in the foggy streets of London, is determined to gain the treasure that obsesses him.  The story is also that of the clash of good and evil, as Havoc encounters Canon Avril, Campion's uncle, a gentle religious man.  Allingham was not afraid to sideline her hero when necessary and Campion has a minor role in Tiger In the Smoke.

Allingham never makes Campion's background clear.  In fact at one point she mischievously suggests that he is not just well-born but actually royal.  It appears that his family disapproved of his adventurer's lifestyle and disinherited him; however we are introduced to his uncle, Canon Avril (Tiger In the Smoke 1952) and his sister Valentine, who has also been disinherited (The Fashion In Shrouds 1938).  We also discover that his grandmother encouraged his wayward inclinations and that his real first name is Rudolph. 
In the later novels, Campion is quieter and much more sensible.  In fact he has grown up.  He is married to Amanda and they have a son, Rupert.  Campion now works as a consultant for the police and secret service.  In Cargo of Eagles Campion is described as, 'tall and fair, but he was over-thin and the careful veil of affable vacuity which had begun, like his large spectacles, as a protection, and had become a second skin, had robbed him of good looks.'  

The thing that sets Allingham apart from other Golden Age writers is the subtle playfulness and sense of fun in many of her books.  Albert Campion personifies this, although both he and his adventures can be serious, even desperate.  Allingham is at her most mischievous when dealing with Campion's appearance, his affectation of foolishness and his family background.  The teasing resemblance to Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey cannot be missed; nor can the parallel between the perfect gentleman's gentleman, Bunter, and the far from gentlemanly Lugg.  At no point does Allingham show any sign of having fallen in love with her main character (a charge that has often been levelled at Sayers) but one does get the impression that she finds him very good company.
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Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher.  She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel, The Deadly Dames.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  The Terminal Velocity of Cats is the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, published July 2013.





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