A Look at One of the Loved Golden-Age Writers and her sleuth : Margery Allingham and Albert Campion
“The Inspector had a vision of a lank immaculate form surmounted by a pale face half obliterated by enormous horn-rimmed spectacles. The final note of incongruity was struck by an old-fashioned deerstalker cap set jauntily upon the top of the young man’s head. Chief Detective-Inspector Stanislaus Oates began to laugh. Ten minutes before he had felt that spontaneous mirth was permanently beyond him, “Campion!’ he said ‘Who’s after you now?’”
Why would anyone love to read—and yes, reread—Allingham’s mysteries? Granted, she’s considered an esteemed member of the elite circle of British mystery writers during the ‘Golden-Age’, a circle that includes: Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, and Georgette Heyer. But she often breaks a major rule. She doesn’t always give the reader enough clues to solve the crime, until the very end. And, if that’s not frustrating enough, her protagonist begins the series as a rather silly, upper-class twit described as vacant and negligible. In fact, he’s silly to the point of irritation. Some casual readers felt the character was written as a spoof of Peter Whimsey.
The Golden-Age mystery writers’s detectives shared several things in common. Sayers’s Peter Whimsey, Marsh’s Alleyn, and Allingham’s Campion were all young men of independent means and access to England’s society. Marsh’s Alleyn eventually joins the police force, but Whimsey and Campion are able, due to their wealth, to have the time to dash about the countryside solving crimes. Even Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot can cruise the Nile, and visit the far-flung outposts of the British Empire.
The fans of Allingham, however, have found reasons to favor her writing over that of her contemporaries. The biggest difference, some feel, is that Christie, Sayers, and the rest focused on the how and who of the crime. Characters were almost flat, usually stereotypical, reflecting general attitudes of upper-class England during that period. In Christie’s mysteries, one could almost think of them as interchangeable between books. They usually included the older dowager, a retired military man, a young couple, a vicar, and the eligible young woman (often the dowager’s niece, or companion). Sayers’ class-consciousness was clear in her writing; her servants were often portrayed in a much more condescending manner than Allingham’s.
Allingham focused on the why of the crime. For her, the story revolved around the characters, and why they did the things they did. She described herself as older and fat (her words, not mine), and claimed that it was an advantage. People paid no attention to her, so she could watch and listen to people. And she listened, not just to what people said, but how they said it. She had homes both in London and in the country and blended easily with people in both places. In this way, I feel, she had more in common with Christie’s Miss Marple, who often saw the truth of the crime by the behavior of the people involved.
Another difference in Allingham’s series was the setting. For Christie, it was often the manor, or the cruise, set in a period that reflected England as it was once (“and ever should be”). Allingham’s England changed over the years, and Campion changed with it. The young foolish twit, in the beginning, became over time, and especially as England went to war, more serious. In Tiger in the Smoke, (1952) a punch-card computer was featured. Moreover, Campions’s stories weren’t always straight-up detective murder mystery stories, either. They were adventures, thrillers, and spy stories. There were ghosts and pirates. And sometimes, Campion took a backseat in the story. In the first book he appeared in, The Crime at Black Dudley, he appeared as a minor, odd duck type of character. Allingham’s publisher liked him and asked for him to appear in more books. Again, in the last book, unfinished at the time of her death, Campion plays a back-up role.
There are too many books to look at each of them, but we should mention a few:
Police at the Funeral (1931)
Campion is at Socrates Close, to help prevent a murder. There are two murders, locked doors, blackmail and an enormous bare footprint in the flowerbed. Allingham evokes the aura of the mansion. The family lawyer says to Campion,
“There they are, a family forty years out of date, all vigorous, energetic people by temperament, all, save for the old lady, without their fair share of brains, and herded together in that great mausoleum of a house, tyrannized over by one of the most astounding personalities I’ve ever encountered. Imagine it, Campion, there are stricter rules in that house than you or I were ever forced to keep at our schools. And there is no escape.”
This is one of those in the series where you are missing a vital piece of information, which doesn’t appear until almost the end. It reflects the attitudes of that period which are no longer deemed acceptable, but here they are far less cutting than in Sayers’s, and even Christie’s books. If you can accept such observations as a comment of how things were, rather than how they should be, you’ll see why some call this one of her best.
The Case of the Late Pig (1937)
This adventure is narrated by Campion. It begins with Lugg, his valet (man-servant/butler/strongman) reading the obit column aloud while Champion has breakfast one morning in January. The death notice of Pig Peters, Champion’s school nemesis, is announced. Champion having once said he’d be at Pig’s funeral, goes. In June, Champion is called back to Highwaters to view a body. It’s Pig, dead only twelve hours.
Pearls Before Swine (1945) (originally published in England as Coroner’s Pidgin)
Champion has returned from the war on six weeks leave and is cleaning up in the London Bottle Street flat, in a hurry to get home to the country. In the midst of his bath, Lugg and a woman deposit a dead body in the bedroom. This book finds Champion much more subdued. War has made him older and wiser. London, in fact all of England, is in the midst of change and some people embrace the change and others resist it. While several of books in the series are in general touted as ‘the best Margery Allingham mystery’, this is my favorite.
Tiger in the Smoke (1952)
This is the Champion tale that is the most different from the others in the series. This is a noir, serial-killer tale in which Champion plays a minor role, backing up Inspector Luke who faces a true moral dilemma. The ‘smoke’ is the heavy fog that settles over the city and allows the killer to go unnoticed and uncaught. Allingham’s ability to forge characters that are so true and vivid that they come off the page and stay with you is demonstrated in this book, which most call her best.
When all is said and done, the answer to my question is: People read, and reread Margery Allingham because she’s such a good writer. You know there’s an adventure to be had, and you’re willing to go along and see what happens.
Picture Campion happily soaking in his tub, calculating in his mind how many minutes he has to bath, to dress, to get to the train station and then to have his plans thrown into a muddle because there’s a dead woman on his bed. You just have to know what happens, right?