It is Sunday, late afternoon, winter. Outside the street lamps are already on, and a cold rain patters against your windows. What do you feel like reading, curled up in your armchair? Obviously, a whodunnit. But not just any old whodunnit. You don’t want the colourless style and arid tricksiness of Agatha Christie, nor the stately prose and rampant snobbery of Dorothy L. Sayers. You want the real queen of crime, the best, the darkest, the most interesting, idiosyncratic and literary novelist that the Golden Age of detective fiction produced. I refer, of course, to Margery Allingham.
Allingham’s novels hit the spot. They’re effortlessly entertaining but never make you feel that you’re slumming it. Her stories do indeed satisfy the requirements of the genre, and satisfy them beautifully: they are intricately plotted, the clues are artfully planted, the identity of the murderer is hard to guess yet obvious when revealed; she adheres to all Ten Rules of the Game laid down by the writer of classic detective fiction Ronald Knox. Judged as pure detective stories they are up there with the best. But the point is that they are much more than pure detective stories. They are proper novels with real characters, three-dimensional settings and a dark, quirky, grotesque sensibility that is all Allingham’s own.
The titles of her books convey something of the strangeness of her vision: The Fashion in Shrouds, Death of a Ghost, Dancers in Mourning, The Tiger in the Smoke, Sweet Danger, The Beckoning Lady, The Mind Readers . . . They could all be the titles of ghost stories. Allingham never breaks Knox’s rule about not including supernatural elements, but in their unsettling atmosphere and sense of the reality of evil her novels do often induce the kind of frisson we expect from a good ghost story.
Margery Allingham, born in 1904, was something of a child prodigy. Encouraged to write by her father (an author himself) she had her first story published at the age of 13, in the grown-up magazine Mother and Home. Her first novel was published when she was a mere 19. But the detective character who would make her name and fortune didn’t appear until 1929, when she was 25. The novel was The Crime at Black Dudley, and the detective was Albert Campion.
Campion is not the central character in that book, although he plays a significant role in solving the crime. But he is by far the most memorable. He belongs in that fine tradition of English literary characters, the aristocratic idler who appears no more than a drawling drawing-room ornament but who, under the surface, is steely, tough, resourceful and ten times more intelligent than anybody guesses. (Other characters in this tradition include Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel, aka Sir Percy Blakeney; Captain W. E. Johns’s Lord Bertie Lissie, Biggles’s foppish, aristocratic friend who is ‘a devil with a Spitfire and a wizard with a gun’; and of course Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey.) So aristocratic is Campion, indeed, that towards the close of the novel he tells another character, George Abbershaw, the name of his mother, and Abbershaw is struck dumb with astonishment. (We never learn the name of the mother but clearly she is a bare step away from royalty.)
Allingham doesn’t make any further capital out of Campion’s noble family in the books that follow (he appears in eighteen detective novels), but the basic template has been established. Campion is a tall, slender, well-bred and well-educated young man with long thin legs. His hair is blond (often referred to as ‘tow-coloured’), his face pale, and he wears horn-rimmed spectacles. He is seldom moved to displays of emotion and he has a tendency to mur-mur; in extreme situations he may express surprise or discomfiture by blinking behind his glasses.
A detective novel stands or falls on the quality of its protagonist. Hercule Poirot is fun to read about, but for me he is always too far-fetched, too much a collection of mannerisms, to take seriously; Peter Wimsey is too obviously intended to be perfect and too alive to class distinctions to be really sympathetic. As for Edmund Crispin’s Gervase Phinn, he is so odious, facetious and conceited that I only ever read one novel starring him and vowed never to read another. But Allingham pulled off something remarkable with Campion. He transcends the stereotype which gave him birth to become a real living, breathing and, crucially, extremely likeable human being. He is always pleasant and polite to others, free of the insufferable arrogance which many Golden Age authors deemed to be de rigueur for a crime-solver. Of course he has all the expected accoutrements of a gentleman detective: he belongs to a private club (the Junior Greys in Piccadilly), drives a red Lagonda and has a man-servant, an argumentative, h-dropping ex-burglar with the splendid name of Magersfontein Lugg.
Over the course of the novels Campion ages and matures. Garrulous in the early books, he is quieter and more thoughtful in the later ones; in The Fashion in Shrouds (1938) he becomes engaged to Amanda Fitton, an aircraft engineer, whom he later marries (in Traitor’s Purse, 1941), and they produce a son, Rupert. Campion’s sister, by the way, is a fashion designer. Campion is anchored in the real world, with family, friends and connections, in a way that most fictional detectives are not. (Who is Philip Marlowe’s sister? Has he even got one?)
What really makes Allingham’s detective fiction so distinctive, though, is the quality of her imagination. Everything is turned up a notch or two, so that her world seems, not realistic but hyper-real. Even the characters’ names are extraordinary: Meg Elginbrodde, Gilbert Whippet, Slippers Bellew, John Lafcadio, Max Fustian, Chloe Pye, Guffy Randall, Stanislaus Oates. Then she can convey a sense of place with hallucinatory vividness. Here’s a description of Campion’s club, where he sits at breakfast-time on a plush crimson settle:
The heavy curtains, corded and swathed with Victorian generosity round the vast windows, seemed to resent the strong sunlight which burnished their fringes and strove to disclose the intimacies of their weave, so that the great room was made misty by the little war between light and shadow.
Her books are simultaneously playful and sinister. Take, for example, The Case of the Late Pig (1937), a kind of black comedy which, incidentally, is the only Campion novel to be narrated in the first person. It opens with Campion being notified (anonymously) of the funeral of a man named Peters, nicknamed Pig, who used to bully Campion at school. On a whim, Campion attends the funeral. Six months later he is called upon to help investigate a murder. The body, he is startled to see, is that of the late Pig. More murders follow, naturally. Yet the style is light-hearted, reminiscent at times of P. G. Wodehouse: ‘No English country house is worthy of the name if it is not breathtaking at half past six on a June evening, but Halt Knights is in a street by itself.’ Or (of an acquaintance of unmemorable appearance): ‘I don’t know what he looks like, except that presumably he has a face, since that is an omission that I should have been certain to observe.’ Or: ‘She looked at me like a suddenly militant sparrow.’
An altogether grimmer, weightier novel is The Tiger in the Smoke (1952), in which Albert Campion plays a relatively minor role (in the film version made in 1956 his character is omitted). The eponymous Tiger is Jack Havoc, a psychopathic killer who has escaped from jail – an embodiment of pure evil, but an entirely believable one. He is balanced by a figure of saintly virtue, Campion’s uncle, Canon Avril, and the confrontation between the two of them in a church at midnight near the end of the novel is one of the most marvellous set-pieces in all crime fiction: stagey, overblown, yet utterly convincing and compelling. It achieves an almost mythic quality in its stark opposition between two comprehensive and mutually antagonistic world views.
Other characters in the novel include Tiddy Doll, Havoc’s thuggish albino henchman, who controls a sinister band of ragged street musicians. They capture Geoffrey Levett, the romantic lead, and keep him tied up in a wheelbarrow in a cellar while, awaiting instructions from Havoc, they decide whether or not to kill him. (This theme of the helpless victim, bound or drugged or otherwise incapacitated and waiting to be slaughtered, is, incidentally, a favourite device of Allingham’s: the first murder victim in The Case of the Late Pig goes through such an ordeal, as does one of the victims in The Fashion in Shrouds, and in Death of a Ghost Campion himself narrowly escapes such a fate.)
The Tiger in the Smoke is utterly far-fetched, of course, but one takes it seriously because of the quality of Allingham’s writing. Her representation of bleak, foggy, post-war London sets the tone of darkness, despair and moral confusion, and could almost have been written by Dickens: ‘The fog was like a saffron blanket soaked in ice-water. It had hung over London all day and was beginning to descend. The sky was yellow as a duster and the rest was a granular black, overprinted in grey and lightened by occasional slivers of bright fish colour as a policeman turned in his cape.’
Margery Allingham’s influence extends beyond crime fiction. She wrote, as Colin Watson put it in Snobbery with Violence, detective novels that had ‘a disconcerting resemblance to literature’. Her weightier admirers include A. S. Byatt, and I have always been convinced that Iris Murdoch learned much from her: the Murdochian world of larger-than-life characters with unlikely names, vividly realized settings, high drama and moral seriousness leavened with whimsy all come from the Allingham pattern-book. Margery Allingham’s novels have remained both popular and highly regarded since her death in 1966; in 2015 Vintage reissued them all in a new edition. I haven’t read every single one but I’m looking forward to doing so – in an armchair, with the curtains drawn, the rain pattering at the window, and a glass of something by my side.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 52 © Brandon Robshaw 2016