(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

After her pedestrian story of police investigation, The White Cottage Mystery, which she later removed from her list of works, Margery Allingham hit on a character who would dominate her novels and the imaginations of her readers for half a century. He was Albert Campion, the pale, scholarly, seemingly ineffectual aristocrat whom she introduced in The Crime at Black Dudley. As Allingham herself commented, the changes in Campion’s character that were evident over the years reflected changes in the author herself, as she matured and as she was molded by the dramatic events of the times through which she lived.

When Allingham began to write her novels in the 1920’s, like many of her generation she had become disillusioned. Unable to perceive meaning in life, she decided to produce a kind of novel that did not demand underlying commitment from the writer or deep thought from the reader, a mystery story dedicated to amusement, written about a witty, bright group of upper-class people who passed their time with wordplay and pranks—and occasionally with murder. In Allingham’s first novels, Albert Campion is somewhat like P. G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster, pursuing one girl or another while he attempts to outwit an opponent. The fact that Campion’s opponent is a murderer is not particularly significant; he is an intellectual antagonist, not a representative of evil. Furthermore, most of the action itself is comic.

Look to the Lady

In Look to the Lady (1931), for example, a formidable country matron abandons her tweeds and pearls for the garb of a mystical priestess, presiding over the rites of the Gyrth Chalice. In her costume, she is hilarious, a target of satire; when she is found dead in the woods, she is of far less interest, and the solution of her murder is primarily an exercise of wit, rather than the pursuit of justice.

Death of a Ghost

With Death of a Ghost, in 1934, Allingham’s books become less lighthearted but more interesting. Her prose is less mannered and more elegant, her plots less dependent on action and more dependent on complex characterization, her situations and her settings chosen less for their comic potentiality and more for their satiric possibilities. Death of a Ghost is the first book in which Allingham examines her society, the first of several in which the world of her characters is an integral part of the plot. Before the murder takes place in Death of a Ghost, Allingham must create the world of art, complete with poseurs and hangers-on, just as later she will write of the world of publishing in Flowers for the Judge (1936), that of the theater in Dancers in Mourning (1937), and finally that of high fashion in The Fashion in Shrouds (1938).

Just as Allingham becomes more serious, so does Albert Campion, who abandons even the pretext of idiocy, becoming simply a self-effacing person whose modesty attracts confidences and whose kindness produces trust. In Sweet Danger he meets the seventeen-year-old mechanical genius Amanda Fitton. After she reappears in The Fashion in Shrouds, Campion’s destiny is more and more linked to that of Amanda. If she is good, anyone who threatens her must be evil. Thus, through love Campion becomes committed, and through the change in Campion his creator reflects the change in her own attitude.

Traitor’s Purse

With the rise of Adolf Hitler, it had become obvious that laughter alone was not a sufficient purpose for life. Even the more thoughtful social satire of Allingham’s last several books before Death of a Ghost was inadequate in the face of brutality and barbarism. Only courage and resolution would defeat such unmistakable evil, and those were the qualities that Allingham dramatized in her nonfictional book about her own coastal Essex village in the early days of the war; those were also the qualities that Albert Campion exhibited in the wartime espionage story Traitor’s Purse (1941). In that thriller, the forces of evil are dark, not laughable, and the traitorous megalomaniac who is willing to destroy Great Britain to...

(The entire section is 1723 words.)