A 'Moody Masterpiece' from Sarah Weinman

Yesterday (May 20th) was Margery Allingham's birthday. Here's the graceful appreciation from Sarah Weinman published on HiLoBrow.

MARGERY ALLINGHAM (1904-66) gets lumped into the Golden Age of Mystery bracket alongside her contemporaries Christie, Sayers, Marsh & Tey, but she more than any of them — even Dante-devoted Sayers — wore that mantle with discomfort. A quick run-through of the highlights, from prolific output to raffish detective to enormous success, might not convey that impression. But look again and see that beneath her most famous sleuth Albert Campion’s adventure-seeking, upper class charm is a more fluid figure, changing over time from the pseudonymous enigma introduced in The Crime at Black Dudley (1929) to husband and father, bound to proto-feminist fighter pilot Amanda. Who else would relegate her detective to incidental status in her pièce de résistance, as Allingham did in the moody masterpiece The Tiger in the Smoke (1952)? Her long-running world is full of wit and brio, but one cannot drown out the otherworldly drumbeat that turns conventional crime fiction into something sweetly off-kilter.


Donald Henderson

Donald Henderson was a near contemporary of Margery Allingham, being born in 1903 to her 1904. But that wasn't why I snapped up a copy of Goodbye to Murder on ABE Books. A while ago I was reading a diary that my mother had written aged about 15. There was mention of a Donald who arrived as part of a group of actors and was obviously a bit special to my15 year old Mum. 'A cousin', she said. Recently we were sorting through some photographs and there he was again. 'He wrote novels', she said and with a wonderful memory flash remembered the title of one Mr Bowling Buys a Newspaper. It rang a faint bell with me to - but was I just getting muddled with Mr Britling sees it Through?  Possibly. Mr Bowling was written in 1943 and has a wartime setting - I think. Can't yet afford the copies on ABE but am full of enthusiasm as Raymond Chandler was apparently a fan of this psychological thriller.

Goodbye to Murder was an early Pan paperback (1947) so was affordable and fascinating. Published just after Henderson had died, this black comedy has one almost yelling at the murderer to get on and do the deed - the main victim is SO complacently loathsome. An evocative setting of post-war middleclass living in a London mansion block with points to make about oppression in marriage and repression in sexuality. I know I'll want to read it again but had to hand the copy over to Mum.

Henderson wasn't her cousin after all. He was the adopted son of one of her father's many sisters. About 20 years older than Mum, he worked for her father for a while before becoming an actor and then working for the BBC during the war. He was buried in a bombed house and dug out, but his lungs never recovered. He was always kind to this much younger 'cousin', noticed her and took her out. No wonder she had a bit of a crush on him. Clearly a kind as well as a gifted man. How sad that he died so prematurely.


Those hatless girls

In 1975 Joyce Allingham cut and re-shaped the text of her sister Margery’s The White Cottage Mystery for re-publication by Chatto and Penguin. Such was the influence of the Penguin edition that Joyce’s version has become unquestioningly accepted. While it was quite normal in the Allingham family for relatives to work on one another’s texts (eg Margery herself editing her brother Phil’s Cheapjack) Joyce’s abridgement, looked at today, does Margery few favours.

Barry Pike has recently loaned me the Jarrold’s Jackdaw library paperback from 1938 in which the 1928 text is reprinted without alteration. It’s a very much more enjoyable read than the standard Penguin edition. A brief comparison between the texts indicates that Joyce was attempting to make The White Cottage Mystery pacier and more up to date. To this end she cuts several passages of reflective dialogue and whole paragraphs of description. Thus we no longer share Jerry Challoner’s regret at the lines of new red and white villas dotted along the main road as he approaches the village where the White Cottage is situated. ‘The whole of East Anglia was becoming a vast suburbia,’ he reflects,  ‘wagging his head over the desecration.’ While one can understand Joyce, in 1975, feeling that this notion has been superseded by the post WW2 building boom, much of the interest in reading Margery’s first novel in the detective ‘box’ is noting how much contemporary observation she is already choosing to include. When Jerry Challoner arrives in Mentone (where Margery and Pip had spent their honey moon in 1927) he is enchanted by ‘the crazy carriers carts from the mountains with their noisy villainous-looking drivers, the hatless girls with their marvellous coiffures …’  Joyce removes the adjective ‘hatless’: in 1975 it was hardly surprising to see girls without hats. Clarry Gale’s tie is no longer ‘a disgrace to the race of tie-makers generally’ (because we don’t expect ties to be handmade) and Norah Bayliss is silently divested of her ‘gown’.

Joyce Allingham was a much more widely travelled person than her sister but Margery’s loyal admirers may regret that she was quite so fierce blue-pencilling what is a rare glimpse of Allingham Abroad. Margery’s impression of Mentone was colourful and probably naïve. I enjoyed seeing it through her 1920s tourist eyes: ‘the quaint old border village that has in it at once such magnificence and such squalor’, the combination of ‘sleek motor cars and strange old canopied victories from the station’ which bring ‘new arrivals to this coast of pleasure’, the breeze-blown ‘jabber and laughter of a foreign town.’

 ‘Jabber’ is not a word we feel comfortable with today when describing foreign-language speakers and there are other places in the WCM when Joyce quietly makes the text more politically acceptable.  ‘The study of peasant peculiarities’ is no longer W.T. Challoner’s ‘dearest hobby’ and ‘Clarry Gale’s expression of surprise was so innocent that it would have aroused the suspicions of a village policemen’ is taken out as a joke too far. Cutting the over-use of the adjective ‘revolting’ when applied to Clarry and some of the frequent generalisations about women’s nature (‘W.T. knew that, woman-like, she had followed his argument but was still not convinced’) may reduce the our opportunities to damn Margery as snobbish or sexist but, in my view, the reader of 1920s detective fiction should be savvy enough to know that it’s in for a penny, in for a pound. And that’s counting in Old Money. *

* (where for those too young to remember there were 240d to £1, not the paltry 100p)


Cadavers in the Times

Just as I was leaving for the Bouchercon, Francis thrust a copy of the Times into my hand.  'Read the third leader,' he insisted.

What a piece of serendipity. Under the title 'Murder Most Mystifying' Oliver Kamm had written a short piece in praise of the detective novel form.  He'd been reading P.D. James's short book Talking About Detective Fiction (Bodleian 2009)

'The wonder is,' Kamm commented, 'That so rigid a structure should provide so rich a vehicle for the literary imagination ... at its best the detective novel is a window on its time and on the darkness of the human condition.

'Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes belongs to a fog bound Victorian London where opulence lies alongside a criminal underworld. Margery Allingham's greatest story of Albert Campion, The Tiger in the Smoke, evokes the same familiar but threatening place in another time. G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown solves crimes through an understanding of the ineradicability of sin. And Lady James's peerless, ageless poet-detective is a shrewd observor of mores as well as murder. They are cultural treasures. Long may cadavers litter the literary landscape.' (The Times Tuesday October 15th 2009)


I didn't only hate her, I wished that she were dead 

Looking through my Margery Allingham notes to check biographical details of Phil 'Cheapjack' Allingham, I came across one of the verses Margery wrote for Joy in 1927.  "I wished that from her frilly skirts the lace would come apart" - scareee!

Click here to read the whole poem