by Sharon Tucker
“I have been trained to remark since I was seven, and I must always be watching and noting and putting things into communicable form. It has become a second nature and is inescapable.” Margery Allingham
Of the four Queens of Golden Age Mystery, Margery Allingham has been the least easy read. I suspect it’s because her Albert Campion comes across on the page in some of the early novels as so free of intriguing quirks that, to the uninitiated, he seems rather a milquetoast. He seldom fails to be arch, annoyingly omniscient, and he doesn’t even use his own name in his adventures due to hush-hush royal connections. Let’s face it, he is smug. By comparison, Christie’s Marple is a lovably scatty, and Poirot’s vanity is so legendary that it’s amusing, rather than irritating. Sayers’ Lord Peter has suffered badly from shell-shock in WWI, and in the first novels does his best to flutter inconsequentially only to be saved from himself by his man Bunter. As for Roderick Alleyn, well, he’s rather perfect too, but he’s a beautifully mannered police inspector with a quiet, unassuming air and an ill-advised penchant for an ill-tempered artist, Agatha Troy, so he is flawed by association. We, in the twentieth and twenty-first century, love our flawed heroes, and we naturally find the characters of Christie, Sayers, and Marsh sympathetic from the very beginning. Campion was not quite human enough as I began reading Allingham’s novels.
Unfortunately, I began my reading with Mr. Campion: Criminologist (1939). Albert Campion is brilliantly aggravating in the novel The Case of the Late Pig, but since it was narrated in the first person by Campion, I should have seen trouble coming early on. He was also moderately insufferable in the short stories that follow, largely due to his unreachableness as a character.
Feeling that I had chosen the wrong book to start with, I began to read articles about Allingham for insight and came across a tribute by A. S. Byatt in Britain’s Guardian citing Allingham as the most original and surprising of the other three Queens. Hmmm. Respecting authority to a degree, I decided to discard Casebook and read Look to the Lady (1931) about a prominent family’s missing mystical chalice, Sweet Danger (1933) where Campion meets the significant woman in his life while trying to reestablish her family to their rightful, hereditary title, and Traitor’s Purse (1941) in which an amnesiac tries valiantly to save Britain from ruin. I thought these would serve as a fair sampling, yet not go too far into Allingham’s mature works that I could savor later on if I could see the light that Byatt and others saw.
Look to the Lady, I must admit, was a fun read, although I realized shortly in that I had seen it presented in a BBC series, Campion in 2005. Undaunted, I began reading and was re-intrigued by the down-on-his-luck scion of a peer who is taken in hand by both Lugg and Campion. Here our hero wins the trust of our scion by presenting him with knowledge of an approaching crime that deeply affects his family and their hereditary rights. The primary subplot accompanying the approaching crime has to do with a local curse, but other subplots twinkle just as brightly throughout the novel.
Lady Amanda Fitton makes her debut in Sweet Danger, also a BBC presentation. Despite her youth, by the end of the novel it’s fairly obvious that much more will follow in the coming years between Lady Amanda and Campion when she comes of age. The main plot concerns the securing of proof that a small, valuable parcel of land on the coast of France belongs to England and to the Fittons. Campion and a few cohorts have been dispatched to find the evidence that this is indeed the case, but find their lives in danger despite the fact that their efforts have been useless up to that point. In fact they find that the real proof lies back in England in the hamlet of Pontisbright, the home of the Fittons who have had their right to legitimacy erased. Campion begins to suspect that items of local folklore are clues to solving the family’s problems and works quietly to save the inheritance, Lady Amanda, and the day.
Traitor’s Purse won me over to Margery Allingham forevermore, not only due to the maturity of her prose style, but for accomplishing the goals of the novel from a challenging starting point. A desperate amnesiac in an isolation ward knows with inexplicable certainty the fate of the nation is dangling precariously, and he has a vital role to play in avoiding disaster, but he is under guard for killing a policeman. Clearly he must escape and hopefully, along the way he will learn his identity and be able to avert the coming national calamity. He escapes, stealing a car to make his getaway, but cannot shake a persistent tail. He stalls his stolen car, bracing for the police only to find those following him actually know and like him. The charade begins as he struggles to play along until he can gain enough traction to discover the secret of the Bridge Institute. I read it in one sitting.
Margery Allingham was a bright young thing of 25 when she achieved her first breakthrough success with The Crime at Black Dudley (1929) introducing Albert Campion only as a minor character. Her publishers and the public fancied Campion so much that that she made him the hero of her next 17 novels and 20 short stories. In fairness perhaps Marsh, Christie, and Sayers had a bit of an advantage over Allingham in terms of seasoning, as they started their writing careers in their thirties. They had come through WWI as adults working in various capacities as a pharmacist’s assistant (Christie), earning a degree at Oxford (Sayers), or working in the theatre (Marsh) before taking up and writing successful mystery novels for the rest of their lives. But I must credit Allingham not only with more energy and variety of plot than her fellows, but also with a singular capacity to also grow and improve as a writer as her career progressed. I’m glad I kept reading her, will keep reading her, and am delighted to report that A. S. Byatt was right.
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