Monday, December 12, 2011

Past Master: Appreciating Margery Allingham

It has been uncharacteristically cold, gray, and snowy here in Denver.  I took a break from twining greens around the house this weekend to curl up on the couch with an icon of Golden Age Detective Fiction--Margery Allingham.

And found myself wondering, as I always do, why she is so rarely read anymore.

Allingham created her amateur British detective, Albert Campion, at the end of the 1920s, as one of those plausible, aristocratic, deceptively foolish young men who look decorative at weekend houseparties and have a knack for solving murders.  Campion reads like a dangerous foil to Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey--his background is deliberately vague, possibly criminal, and his aristocratic family seems to have cast him off.  His valet Lugg--unlike Wimsey's Bunter--is an ex-con.  It's a calculated inversion of a detective fiction trope; and this sinister bent becomes more pronounced as Allingham's writing career evolved and deepened.  I could talk about the excellent classic fiction Allingham turned out in the Thirties--The Fashion in Shrouds, Dancers in Mourning, Black Plumes--but I won't. It's her later fiction that brings me to my knees.

By the 1950s, Allingham abandoned amateur detection for the police procedural, introducing a series of related characters affiliated with Scotland Yard, who call upon the middle-aged Campion as a sort of eminence grise of crime.  More importantly, in such novels as The Tiger in the Smoke and Tether's End, Allingham abandons completely the mystery novel architecture--in favor of a thriller's arc.  She infiltrates the minds of her killers, carrying the reader along with her, in a deft examination of amorality, luck, calculated and cold-blooded murder, and the happy element of chance that unravels a sociopath's world.  She is masterful at inspiring dread, so that even when you've put down the book her characters whisper quietly in the back of your mind and surface at night in your dreams.  Her treatment of trust and its violation, her exploration of the charm of plausible con men and the innocents who care about them, and the final desperation of her trapped criminals, are timeless; her books retain a depth and power entirely due to their complex characterizations.

Allingham's not available in digital format yet, and this neglect--similarly visited upon another Golden Age great, Ngaio Marsh--is a gap in the market SOMEBODY should exploit.  In the meantime, comb your remaining sources of secondhand mystery fiction and snap up the yellowed paperbacks with the deceptively silly covers.  There are forgotten marvels waiting--perfect for a snowy weekend in December.

For a comprehensive wallow in all things Allingham, check out the official website of the Margery Allingham Society.



  1. Thanks for the thumbs-up on this lady's books; will keep an eye open for them.

  2. Dear Stephanie, I feel sure Allingham will soon be in electronic format but will check with the copyright holders. I hope one day you'll come across my biog of Allingham in some format (it's not e yet but maybe next year) as she was also (I think) an interesting and lovely person best wishes Julia Jones