Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Margery Allingham -- queen of crime

It's time I got around to writing a piece about the late Margery Allingham (1904-1966).

There are several sound reasons for mentioning the great Margery: one, she was an extraordinarily good English crime writer, and I am rather partial to such; two, 2004 marks the centenary of her birth; and three, I have just finished re-reading all the twenty-some novels in her canon, in chronological order, and a very rewarding experience it was too.

On examination, however, I find that it is not necessary for me to write very much at all, because there are a whole gang of Allingham enthusiasts who have done all I would wish to do, and more. Visit the web site of the Margery Allingham Society, and you will see what I mean.

The web site offers an admirable biography cum summary of her output by B.A. Pike, taken from volume 77 of the Dictionary of Literary Biography. If I quote the first paragraph at some length it will at least demonstrate why the lady has so many admirers:
Margery Allingham is pre-eminent among the writers who brought the detective story to maturity in the decades between the two world wars. She created an aristocratic, unassuming detective called Albert Campion, who matured from “just a silly ass” of the 1920s to an eminent intelligence veteran forty years later. He ranks high among the great detectives of fiction but does so unobtrusively,
disdaining self-advertisement. Other recurrent characters contribute richly to the Campion series: Campion’s wife, Amanda; his manservant, Lugg; and his police associates, Stanislaus Oates and Charlie Luke. The novels and stories in which they appear are among the most distinguished in the genre – vivacious, stylish, observant, shapely, intricate and witty. They are unfailingly intelligent and imaginative, even when they do not wholly succeed.
The Allingham Society web site also offers: a detailed bibliography; an account of the life and character of her husband, Philip Youngman Carter (the marriage was not without its strains); details of the Society’s activities and publications; links to other relevant sites; and much more. There’s enough there to keep you going for a very long time.

Allingham's 'masterpiece' is generally held to be Tiger in the Smoke, and it is certainly very good. But if you want a single book to test the flavour, try Police at the Funeral. First published in 1931, it is very much of its time, but it is hardly fair to criticise a long-dead author for showing her age.

Personally I like Allingham for two principal reasons. First, she was very English. She wrote about English people, many of them deeply and sometimes alarmingly eccentric, but no less interesting for that. And, secondly, she was a wonderfully stylish writer, without ever falling into the trap of ‘look at me aren’t I awfully clever’. They just don’t make ’em like that any more. Or, if they do, no one has had the courtesy to tell me.

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