Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Margery Allingham: The Beckoning Lady

Margery Allingham is one of my top-ten favourite writers, which is how I came to be reading The Beckoning Lady for the third time -- the first time being about fifty years ago.

The Beckoning Lady was first published in 1955. It was one of the author's later books, and it was, I suspect, slightly old fashioned even when it came out. Miss Allingham (in case you don't know of her) was one of the queens of English crime fiction; her rivals were Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. I have written about Miss Allingham in several previous posts, principally on 4 June 2004, and then again on 17 August 2004.

The plot of The Beckoning Lady is complicated, with a large cast of characters: so large that the author provides a dramatis personae list, which for once is justified. One essential plank of the plot is, I regret to say, wholly incredible now, and can't have been much better in 1955. But I do not mention the book here in order to subject it to serious critical analysis.

I only mention it at all because it seems to me to provide sad proof -- if proof you need -- of my contention (mentioned here more than once) that the English were driven mad by the second world war. The first world war killed off most of the talented men, and the second drove everybody barmy. We were also bankrupt, and have more or less remained so ever since. All of which is a pity, because once upon a time we were doing quite lot of things rather well. Today we are reduced to T. Blair & Co., of whom quite enough will be said elsewhere.

The action of the The Beckoning Lady is confined to a few days before an enormous Midsummer's Eve party, which is held in a large country house of the same name. There are at least two murders, possibly three, depending upon your interpretation of events. There are also gross departures from what must, even then, have been standard police procedure. And, finally, there is some barely credible tampering with the evidence and an invocation of the Old Boys Act of 1898.

You will note, I am sure, that I am not exactly recommending this book to modern readers (even though it is wonderfully well written). But you might care to read it because it was written by a woman who cared deeply for English life; thought that such life was best lived in the English countryside; and deeply regretted the passing of the old ways.

What the author was faced with, in the early 1950s, was a nation stripped of much of its excellence, worried about how to pay next week's rent, and obsessed with trivia, such as whether, when attending church in a village, one should wear a country suit or a town suit. It is no accident that several of the characters in this novel complain of being tired, if not exhausted. Everyone was.

Miss Allingham knew perfectly well that things would never be the same again. And they never were. And while there was much about old England that needed to be discarded post-haste, there was also much that didn't.

Mr Campion (Miss Allingham's lead detective) says this: 'I've lived through the Jazz Age, the Age of Appeasement, the Battle Age. Now it's the Age of the Official.'

Oh, my dear Miss A -- if you only knew.

10 comments:

Jon said...

Interested readers can find a detailed analysis of Allingham's work by Mike Grost on the Golden Age of Detection wiki at http://gadetection.pbwiki.com/Allingham,+Margery

Unfortunately we don't yet have a review up for The Beckoning Lady - perhaps someone would like to provide one?

Chap O'Keefe said...

Though GOB has a few years' seniority over me, I'd like to shout a loud "AMEN!" to his remarks in this post. But then again, maybe not. Shouting semi-sacrilegiously was one of the things no one used to do in those days before "the English were driven mad". Let alone the other four-letter words that can be heard on almost every other mean street. Now to hunt out some Allingham Penguins from the boxes in my basement. . . .

suzanabrams said...

"But I do not mention the book here in order to subject it to serious critical analysis."

A clever review all the same, Michael.

Clive Keeble said...

Ah those idyllic days of yesteryear, when Margery Allingham, Ivy Compton Burnett and C P Snow were stock in trade for all bookshops ; the days when parcels were tied in string and the bookseller had a carefree steady living.

The days when Tony Book played for Bath City...oh Michael, what simple but oh so enjoyable times !!

Ann said...

Hope this means a few more, new, readers of Allingham. She's great.

Paul M. Cray said...

A world in which World War I didn't happen would be a very different world to the one we live in. I think there is an alternative world novel in there somewhere...

In 1914, Britain was still the Workshop of the World, her greatness predicated on the industrial cities of the Midlands, North and Scotland, fuelled by cheap bread from wheat from Canada and cheap meat from the Argentine. A rural idyll, Britain was not (at least if you were a farmer).

SUSAN said...

Tiger in the Smoke is her masterpiece.

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