Classic Crime

Margery Allingham

Margery Louise Allingham was born on the 20th May 1904 in Ealing, London. Allingham was strongly influenced by her mother and father, Herbert and Edith who worked in literature themselves. Herbert was the editor of the Christian Globe and Emily contributed stories to women’s magazines and wrote articles.

Soon after her birth, the family moved out of London and to Essex, settling down in Layer Breton near Colchester. Margery attended the local school before joining the Perse School for Girls in Cambridge.
Allingham was obviously destined to become a writer. She earned her first fee at the age of eight when Margery’s story was published in her aunt’s magazine. Margery moved back to London in 1920 to attend the Regent Street Polytechnic where she was to meet her future collaborator and husband, Philip Youngman Carter. They lived on the edge of the Essex Marshes in Tolleshunt D’Arcy near Maldon.

Allingham’s first novel was published in 1923 and was titled ‘Blackkerchief Dick’ a historical novel about smugglers. It was well received but not a lucrative success. It was to be five years before Allingham unveiled her next book which was to be a murder mystery of the classic kind. ‘The White Cottage Mystery’ featuring Chief Inspector Challoner was originally serialised in The Daily Express.

The story was well received and Allingham turned her hand to writing another thriller titled ‘The Crime at Black Dudley’. A supporting role was taken by a Mr Albert Campion. Allingham originally had no instinct to feature Campion again, but her American publishers, taken by the self-deprecating Mr Campion, cajoled Allingham to give him a starring role. Campion appeared in her next novel, ‘Mystery Mile’ and as they say, the rest is history.

Throughout Campion’s ‘career’ Allingham and her husband, Pip Youngman Carter continued to collaborate and he even designed the covers for her books. Campion starred in nineteen novels and several short stories and was to continue after Allingham’s death in 1966 due to cancer, due to her husband’s offerings entitled, ‘Mr Campion’s Farthing’ and ‘Mr Campion’s Farthing’.

Pip Youngman Carter was not to survive his wife long and passed away in 1969. Although not as widely read today as during her heyday, Allingham is still regarded as one of the ‘Queens of Crime’ with many re-issues of her books still being printed today, the latest being ‘Mr Campion’s Farewell’ which was an original idea and completed by Mike Ripley.

Review: Dancers In Mourning

It was when investigating about ‘Dancers in Mourning’ that I discovered that a writer who shares my love of this novel is Booker Prize winner, A.S. Byatt. I leave her opening words to kick start this review of Allingham’s book…

‘‘Dancers in Mourning’, published in 1937, I feel is the best example of Allingham's capacity to create the atmosphere, showing the shuttered worlds of those involved in the dramatic arts, the stage and the musical.’

Here, Allingham takes a leaf out of Christie’s book and has a cast of characters parachuted in to a large country house in the middle of nowhere. Allingham’s cast is full of actors and dancers. Byatt is unsure how Allingham could know the theatre so well. My guess is that it is due to her time at the Regent Street Polytechnic where she studied drama.

Campion’s friend, Uncle William has written a successful memoir which is to be a musical. Allingham litters this novel with some marvelous named people including ‘Jimmy Sutane’ and ‘Slippers Bellow’. The country house is full to the brim of theatrics which can only mean large egos and fragile temperaments! Needless to say, soon enough murder has been committed and Campion has to negotiate amongst some of the greatest actors of the London stage to try and fathom out who is telling lies.

What Allingham has always done well, sometimes too well so that she could compromise her plots for characterisation, is to chronicle the interplay between all the people in her novels. Here Allingham is adroit at describing Campion’s pangs of love for the unattainable Linda. But while some of Allingham’s plots can go a little awry, I felt that in ‘Dancers in Mourning’ she struck the right balance between plot and character. For me, this novel perfectly shows how Allingham had grown and developed as a writer.

I know that Allingham’s novel ‘The Tiger in the Smoke’ is her most revered of the Campion’s and although I do believe she struck the right cord with the menace of Jack Havoc (the tiger) and London shrouded in a dense November smog (the smoke), but for me it places Campion on the outskirts of the novel and although Allingham shows herself as a writer of greatness, to call it a Campion case is misleading. Anyone wishing to try Allingham’s novels would be best with ‘Dancers in Mourning’, ‘The Fashion in Shrouds’ or even ‘Mystery Mile’.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating