A published author at 19, Margery Allingham dabbled in occult-themed pulp fiction and playwriting before finding her calling in murder mysteries. More than 25 novels and short story collections feature, to some degree, her gentleman detective Albert Campion and his ex-burglar valet Magersfontein Lugg. A mysterious rogue equally at home in British high society or London’s criminal underworld, Campion is an upper crust adventurer in the mold of Sherlock Homes and Lord Peter Wimsey.
Unlike her fellow Queens of Crime Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, Allingham is less focused on the puzzle of the crime and more on the mix of characters involved. In what she called her “plum pudding” approach to writing—a practice still used by modern thriller authors—Allingham likes to create a delicious concoction of characters, settings and themes. Like the serial works of novelist Charles Dickens in the previous century, her books will parcel out a “plum” every few bites, a new morsel of information or excitement to keep the reader hungry for more.
Today, Allingham is far less read than many of her Golden Age colleagues. And that’s a shame. A natural born observer, Allingham has a remarkable talent for the language and trappings of a particular time and place. Wherever she went, she watched, listened and remembered. To read one of her slim volumes is to be transported to a high society manor house, a side street in an interwar English village or a working-class tower block in metropolitan London. And each is a trip worth taking.
The Fashion in Shrouds (1938) — A suspicious suicide, a celebrity suspect and a host of unsavory characters drive this devious, fashion-ensconced plot towards a remarkable solution. For many readers, however, the mystery is made secondary to Allingham’s progressive thoughts on the role of women in society, including a lengthy tract on the distinction between “female” and “feminine.” While many disregard this phase of Allingham’s career as a step too far outside the boundaries of the classic whodunit, titles like The Fashion in Shrouds lay a solid foundation for later works by authors such as P. D. James, Val McDermid and Lynda La Plante.
Sweet Danger (1933) — Falling firmly between mystery and caper, Sweet Danger finds Campion holed up at the Hotel Beauregard charading as the Hereditary Paladin of Averna. A tale of lost heirs, impoverished nobles and demon summoning (really), the book is less a murder mystery and more an example of how the author tried to stretch past the traditional confines of the Golden Age detective. While an early death takes a backseat to the exploits that follow, the book illustrates Allingham’s flair for tales of light adventure and gives a wink and a nod to her occult-flavored beginnings.
Police at the Funeral (1931) — One of Allingham’s best-known Campion novels, Police at the Funeral is both a strong mystery and an excellent example of the changing times in which it was written. Focused on the peculiar Faraday clan of Socrates Close, the mystery highlights the author’s talent for shaping characters through dialect, dialogue and mood. At the same time, it underscores the shifting social landscape of 1930s Britain, including the casual racism that permeates both interwar Europe and many titles of Golden Age fiction. To Allingham’s credit, the racial question at the center of the mystery is, to Campion, an irrelevant issue that should only have been a scandal to previous generations.
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