Monday, September 06, 2004

Youngman Carter

On 17 August I wrote a piece about the late Margery Allingham, who, along with Agatha Christie and one or two others, can legitimately be referred to as a queen of crime fiction.

In 1966 Allingham died at the relatively young age of 62. She had suffered from cancer, and her published work suggests, I think, that she had been failing for some time. There was no dramatic deterioration, but the last novel which she completed, The Mind Readers, was not well received by the critics, and reads unconvincingly today.

She had, however, intended to continue, and at her death she was halfway through Cargo of Eagles. Not surprisingly, given that detective novels have to be carefully planned, the whole framework of the book was well established, and her husband, Youngman Carter, was able to complete it for her. This was no secret even at the time, and most people were not able to detect any difference in quality between the beginning and the end of the book, though Edmund Crispin claimed that he could ‘see the join’.

After his wife’s death, Youngman Carter announced his decision to continue the series of novels featuring Margery’s famous detective, Albert Campion, and he didn’t waste much time in going about it. In 1969 he published Mr Campion’s Farthing, and in 1970 Mr Campion’s Falcon. And there the series finally did end, because Youngman Carter died of lung cancer.

I had read almost all of Margery Allingham’s novels at some time in the past, before I began the re-reading which I completed earlier this year, but I had never tackled the two books written by her husband. I had assumed that they would be of inferior quality.

Well, t’ain’t so. I have recently obtained secondhand copies of the books in question and they turn out to be very presentable indeed.

Both books feature a McGuffin, which is a term invented, I think, by Alfred Hitchock. A McGuffin is a device or a plot element which catches the reader’s attention and drives the action; it is often of little real significance in itself, but it creates a mission or puzzle which provides the plot interest, and around which the various characters can show their paces. In both of Youngman Carter’s solo books the McGuffin remains mysterious until the end, when it is revealed. And, as is commonly the case with McGuffins, the revelation turns out to be less interesting than the events which preceded it.

I have to say, on the evidence of these two novels, that Youngman Carter was absolutely no sort of slouch. Either he learnt a great deal from his wife, or she learnt from him; or perhaps it was just a perfect working partnership. Either way, Youngman Carter proved that he was a highly entertaining thriller writer.

Both books, incidentally, have the great virtue of being relatively short, at least when compared with the behemoths that we get stuck with these days. Mr Campion's Farthing runs to 191 pages in the Penguin edition, and Mr Campion's Falcon to 196. They are crisp, concise, well structured and characterised, and full of fairly convincing action. And, for true Allingham fans, Farthing features one of those tough, indomitable old ladies who appear so often in the great lady’s work.

Good solid thrillers are not so common that we can afford to neglect those from the past. And although these two were written thirty-five years ago, they stand up pretty well.

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