Why is so special about Margery Allingham? More work for the Undertaker … and all her other writing

Why do I prefer reading (and re-reading) Margery Allingham’s novels to those of any other crime writer? I should write, ‘to those of any other crime writer I’ve read so far’, I suppose. But I’ve enjoyed reading detective stories for most of my life. Perhaps saying that I enjoy re-reading Margery Allingham’s novels more than any detective stories I’ve read in the last fifty years gives an idea of how highly I rate her books.

How do I explain this preference?

There are her characters. Like most authors Margery Allingham created a cast of supporting players around her detective, and these characters appear in many of her stories. Unlike her contemporary, Rex Stout, or Donna Leon more recently, Allingham’s characters mature and she allows their lives to continue – both during her stories and between them. Mr Campion not only gets older, he develops quirks and imperfections linked to his age (unlike Dorothy Sayers’ Peter Wimsey, who becomes closer and closer to Sayers’ ideal). Margery Allingham interweaves family life with detection, and gives the latter grounding.

Her world has characters who are well-meaning, intelligent and humorous, and who are both fun, and challenging, to spend time with. Who wouldn’t want to be at Minnie and Tonker’s midsummer party, in The Beckoning Lady, to listen to the Swedish nightingale, to laugh, then gasp at the Augusts’ repartee, to catch up with the Fitton family and to enjoy ice-cream brought by London’s most esteemed bookmaker? Not to mention discussing the art displayed in the barn with critics and artists, eating peas that were podded by eminent members of the CID, while drinking champagne, tea and more champagne, in perfect English summer weather.

Or, in Dancers in Mourning, wouldn’t it be fun to join Lugg, Campion’s ex-burglar cockney manservant, as he entertains the forlorn young daughter of the house by teaching her country house maintenance and etiquette, and how to pick locks? Margery Allingham has a flair for describing poignant, ignored youth – in A Fashion in Shrouds Campion and his fiancée console the son of an actress who only occasionally remembers she has a child.  

It is challenging to try to keep up with the allusions dropped into conversation by the Palinodes, in More Work for the Undertaker, but fun to imagine doing so. (Allingham plays the quotation game with more subtlety than Sayers.) I am not sure I’d actually want to spend time with the eponymous undertaker and his son, but I greatly enjoy his devious conversation and machinations, all supplied with a flavouring of deliberate Victorian Gothic.

Margery Allingham was always willing to experiment, she was never satisfied with simply relocating a Surrey houseparty to a cruise ship or a Riviera villa. Her books have varied settings that differ from each other in atmosphere and population as well as geography, and the crimes committed in them depend on their setting and the year the book was written. Except that murder is always dreadful. One early book (Look to the Lady) invokes the supernatural, in war-time stories Campion must defend the nation against enemy plots, and some later tales concern crimes carried out by international corporations.

Many of Margery Allingham’s books are funny. The humour is slipped in, blink and you miss it, (another reason to re-read). One example, one which I have thought of and smiled about even when not reading the book, is in Coroner’s Pidgin. The eccentric (in name, appearance and character) Miss Pork is leading Mr Campion and two police detectives down the stairs into her dark cellar. She warns them that the second step from the bottom is faulty, which means that the descending detectives suddenly concentrate on each footstep, rather than on detection.

Allingham’s descriptions of settings, the homes and the people within them, show her familiarity both with rural, coastal Suffolk and with central London’s squares. She is as confident recording the speech and attitudes of Suffolk countryside dwellers during her era, as she is in describing the mannerisms, foibles and conversation of artists and intellectuals living in London’s Little Venice in Death of a Ghost. Her descriptions of impoverished, smog-filled, battered London in The Tiger in the Smoke, make this reader feel the grime on her skin, and inhale the dank, smoke-flavoured air. (The characters are compelling, too).

Margery Allingham’s characters reflect her experience and the times in which she wrote. She created Amanda Fitton, a woman who becomes a talented aeroplane engineer and also marries and has a family. We first meet Amanda using her mechanical aptitude at home to keep an ancient vehicle running (Sweet Danger) and find her in a later one, (The Beckoning Lady) jury rigging a lighting system. But Amanda is exceptional. Working-class women are often married, and earning a wage for menial jobs, but most of Allinghams’s upper-class women have full time roles as wives and mothers. In The Fashion in Shrouds, two successful career women are shown as feeling they not only need a male companion, but also that, in one case he should be a protector, and in the other, have authority in their relationship. I can accept these characters within the world where they lived, but I find it far harder to accept, in another of her books, that a man who blacked his wife’s eye in an argument, then repents, is so easily forgiven.  

This has turned into a subjective mountain of justification for my personal preference, so, in conclusion:

I reread the Margery Allingham novels because they are novels, rather than mere detective stories. The plots are clever, the detective is engaging and those who commit crimes are punished, but there is far more. There is description of, and comment on, slices of English society over a period of thirty years. There is humour, drama and sometimes pathos. Margery Allingham’s writing is persuasive, vivid and captivating.

About lifelonglearner

Teacher in Southern England enthusiastic about exploring ways to learn and teach, and evangelistic about sharing them. Specialism is Physics, but that's just a useful starting point.
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