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 fat
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