Margery Allingham Allingham, Margery - Essay

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Allingham, Margery 1904–1966

Allingham, an English mystery writer and social historian, is known primarily as the creator of Albert Campion, the self-effacing sleuth who appears in all her mystery novels except the first. Her mystery novels are generally divided into two periods: the early works, which are characterized by their fast-paced plots with much physical action, and the later works, which have more subtle character development. Allingham's husband, Philip Youngman Carter, completed her last book, Cargo of Eagles, after her death, then went on to write two additional Albert Campion mysteries. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 4.)

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Blackerchief Dick" is a story] to please a young rather than a grown-up public and so the review of one young reader may be quoted—"it is jolly exciting—all about smugglers and buxom wenches." That is on the whole a very fair description…. [Blackerchief Dick] is very good fun in his way, and the worst that can be said against him is that he is rather too like Captain Hook. He used his knife once too often and that inartistically when he stabbed Anny, the beautiful and virtuous maid at the Ship Inn. A story full of such "rollicking tushery" should surely have had a happy ending.

"Fiction: 'Blackerchief Dick'," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1923), No. 1129, September 6, 1923, p. 590.

The New York Times Book Review

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Margery Allingham with her first book ["Black'erchief Dick"] has earned for herself no mean place in the ranks of the writers of romantic adventure. Such weaknesses as she displays are clearly those of inexperience, and after taking account of them large measure of credit remains due her….

"Latest Works of Fiction: 'Black'erchief Dick'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1923 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 11, 1923, p. 9.

Eugene Reynal

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Mystery Mile" is a distinctly interesting detective story, thoroughly modern in mood, and yet suggestive in its construction of the early Conan Doyles. Margery Allingham … has an alert, inventive mind that transforms the incongruous, the artificial, and the somewhat hackneyed elements of mystery writing into quite vivid and startling effects. The Holmes-Moriarity motive predominates, with a generous sprinkling of rescue of girl about to be tortured by the arch-criminals, duel between detective and master mind isolated in wilderness, and the final swallowing up of Sinister in the quicksands of a swamp. It is grand stuff, entertainingly written, and although you are never invited to do much detecting of your own, you are legitimately held in nervous anticipation of the final dénouement.

A word about the detective who is amusingly overdrawn as a babbling dilettante who always comes through at the right moment. He is a clever creation, and the author succeeds in surrounding him with a certain mystery that is capped by a superb finale.

Eugene Reynal, "Murder Will Out," in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright © 1930 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 6, No. 40, April 26, 1930, p. 997.∗

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In form ["Death of a Ghost"] is a detective story, with merits not always found in detective stories. Several of the people are interesting in themselves, apart from any murder mystery, and so lifelike that one almost doubts the customary fly-leaf note that they are products of the writer's imagination. Most striking of all is the "ghost" of the title. Lafcadio, flamboyant painter, died in 1912, but the story in 1930 depends on his impish legacy…. Albert Campion comes in from previous stories as detective, but his rather annoying affectation of idiocy has dropped off. Incidentally we learn a good deal about the backstairs of the artistic world.

"New Books and Reprints: 'Death of a Ghost'," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1934; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 1679, April 5, 1934, p. 246.

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"The Fashion in Shrouds" is probably the best detective story published this year. It is beautifully planned and written, and it contains a judicious mixture of ingredients…. [There] is the most admirable light relief provided by the extremely well-drawn character of the actress Georgia Wells, whose matrimonial adventures supply the book's theme, and by Lugg, Mr. Campion's delightful ex-convict factotum. This is a novel which may be thoroughly recommended even to those who normally eschew detective fiction.

"Detective Stories," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1938; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 1901, July 9, 1938, p. 467.∗

Nicholas Blake

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The settings in The Fashion in Shrouds] are gorgeously exotic—a fashionable dressmaker's salon, a millionaire's house, the start of a long-distance flight. The characters, too, are nearly all birds of paradise, and the eye becomes dazzled at such an array of beauty and talent. Chief of these is the actress, Georgia, a brilliant piece of invention—so brilliant that, paradoxically enough, she is at times scarcely credible…. [All the characters are] immensely witty and sensitive and up to date. I am not sure, though, that in this book Miss Allingham has not Gone Too Far. Her detection here is almost too politely unobtrusive, like the pin-stripe on a Savile Row suit: the bad old days of the blunt instrument are gone—and no doubt for good; but there is something to be said against a weapon whose point is so fine that it becomes invisible. The Fashion in Shrouds is a good and most readable book; but it is not, like her last one, Dancers in Mourning, a classic of its genre. (p. 312)

Nicholas Blake, "Dram of Poison," in The Spectator (© 1938 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 161, No. 5747, August 19, 1938, pp. 312-13.∗

Michael Joseph

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Miss Allingham has turned from detective fiction to a rather solemn and inconsequent variety of romantic psychology [with Dance of the Years, published in the United States as The Galantrys]….

There is no hesitation in [the] recital of events, but the events themselves, it must be confessed, too often seem entirely arbitrary. Again and again there seems no particular reason, in fact, in spite of James's touchy and brooding preoccupation with his heredity, why he should have behaved as Miss Allingham says he did. Towards the end she permits him, by an unaccountable effort of prescience or prophecy, to leap ahead a couple of generations and to listen to the rumble of tanks in 1941, and the apparent determination not to stop short before our own day is reached gives the measure of Miss Allingham's artifice in this serious, sometimes engagingly level-headed but altogether too stiffly contrived piece of romantic fancy.

Michael Joseph, "Novels of the Week," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London); reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 2176, October 16, 1943, p. 497.∗

Diana Trilling

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["The Galantrys"] is the biography of a certain James Galantry, half gipsy and half gentleman, and it is also the story of a changing society, the period in English life when the established order of the eighteenth century was giving way to modern industrialism. But although Mrs. Carter, like so many of the English detective-story writers, is notably well-educated—and not ashamed of it—and despite the fact that in her hero's struggles to cope with his complicated heredity she had the material for a perfectly plausible psychological study, her novel sacrifices the realities of both fiction and social history to a quite eccentric interest in genetics. She is obsessed with the science of breeding; drawing most of her lessons from animal mating, she seems to regard all human character, not only James Galantry's, as if it were as susceptible to hereditary determination as the character of a horse. The result is neither convincing nor funny, just odd—especially the last section of her story, which is taken up with Galantry's vision of his descendants right down to their roles in the present war.

Still, there is one good reason, closely related to Margery Allingham's past reputation, why, "The Galantrys" cannot be completely dismissed as merely the indulgence of an eccentricity—Mrs. Carter's prose, which is startling, in these days, for its intelligence and wit. No one who has not himself been deadened by the deadness of contemporary writing can fail to respond to the sweet pleasure of such a sentence as "No one spoke ill of her, everybody loved her absentmindedly."… (pp. 505-06)

Diana Trilling, "Fiction in Review: 'The Galantrys'," in The Nation (copyright 1943 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 157, No. 18, October 30, 1943, pp. 505-06.

Eudora Welty

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mrs. Carter uses James Galantry as the focus of her idea [in "The Galantrys"]. Into her scrutiny of his character she pours her vision of past and future, of England, of society and, I think, a philosophic vision of what could be. Of course, this adds up to an attempt to write the ideal novel; it is hardly surprising that Mrs. Carter does not realize the attempt completely. But the fact that she had the courage to tackle such a theme gives her book breadth and interest….

[James Galantry's] blend of wildly incompatible racial strains, carrying the stigma of "half-breed" in early Victorian England, produces the fundamental conflict. Its effect on James' character is studied through his growing up, his courtship, loves lost and gained, his progeny, his ideals—all he cherishes and hates. The rococo background, of course, is excellent for this inner—and outer—struggle. The settings—countryside and London—are handsomely done. So are the costumes of the day, the vogues, manners and social credos.

The narrative style is, for the most part, as remote as an amused god's view of our cosmos. Occasionally it bends down gently to examine at close range some small incident which may be more enlightening than the rest. Unfortunately this method breeds a certain remoteness in the reader's feelings as well. It is evident that the author knows her people thoroughly—too thoroughly, perhaps….

James is worked out carefully, and appealingly drawn. Sometimes he is a mirror reflecting his times and his country.

Sometimes he is many-faceted. Always he is clear as a transparent jewel that shows its inner texture…. But the novel races too fast for its protagonist: events must be summarized, just as we would enjoy lingering over the small details and the conversation. (p. 6)

Not that "The Galantrys" is metaphysical. Mrs. Carter puts down any such budding ideas in her readers—consistently, and with wit. Her style is comfortable, with no strange angles at all. Perhaps, if she had been a little more daring, both in thought and writing, her novel might have more compelling interest, more original value. (pp. 6, 12)

Eudora Welty, "Victorian Half-Breed," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1943 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 31, 1943, pp. 6, 12.

Beatrice Sherman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["More Work for the Undertaker"] is a top-notch Margery Allingham murder mystery—that is to say, full of keen characterization, humor, old English atmosphere, a charmingly decadent family and a few sudden deaths. And Albert Campion, shrewd, scholarly crime detector, is there to check the widely scattered clues and put the pieces of the puzzle together….

The unwinding of the mystery is fast and exciting and made more so by the antics of the eccentric Palinodes and their very old neighbors.

Beatrice Sherman, "Criminals at Large," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1949 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 6, 1949, p. 27.

James Sandoe

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Mr. Albert Campion's] earliest adventures were zany thrillers, cheerfully spun tarradiddles which poised him imperturbable as they ramped, and panted and raced and had a fine time with improbability. But midway of his course Mr. Campion's adventures turned sober and became detective stories instead of thrillers….

"The Tiger in the Smoke" is a kind of amalgam of the two sorts. In plot it is a thriller, hanging as perilously from chances as ever Pearl White hung from cliffs. In tone it is graver, allusive and carefully figured. The consequence is an uncommon and not awfully tasty dish, as serious in its lines as it is silly in its plot. Indeed, it reaches such strenuous devotion in its final chapters that it seems for a time likely to turn into Christian allegory which, as Mr. Campion might be expected to remark, is a little thick in a thriller for all that Dante managed it rather well….

Miss Allingham is quite expert to have it one way or the other, thriller or novel. But she hasn't been quite clever enough to bring it off in this wise. Still, it's a failure that nearly all of her many admirers will want to meet anyway.

James Sandoe, "Mystery and Suspense," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation), August 24, 1952, p. 8.∗

PHYLLIS McGINLEY

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[If "Tiger in the Smoke"] is not perhaps the finest flower of all the year's garden, it is definitely a flower and not a weed. Indeed, it is a splendid, gaudy, extravagant bloom, guaranteed to please. For it is the product of a real practitioner, of a writer (if I may drop my horticultural figure), willing to take pains with plot, sufficiently talented to write graceful and perceptive prose, sensitive enough to character to make human beings out of victim, criminal and detective alike.

True, "Tiger in the Smoke" might seem to the purist to own a flaw or two. Although Miss Allingham has invented a new detective, an admirable and fascinating man named Charles Luke—although even Albert Campion figures briefly here as a sop, no doubt, to Allingham readers who expect him—this is not really a detective story at all. Clues do not solve the puzzle. The criminal's identity is not revealed by classic formula, at the close of the book, but long before it. It does not have the precise, architectural integrity of the best of Dorothy Sayers….

This is a different genre. It is all suspense, all chase, in the John Buchan tradition. But it is good, very good. From the first wonderful sentence, "It may be only blackmail," to the final clipped paragraph, the story never lags…. The forces of right, if a bit naive at times, do triumph over incredible—no, credible—dangers. And everything, if larger than life, is at least parallel to it. What is more, the criminal meets a fate he has deserved, and there is no false or sentimental deploring that fate…. Here, praise Heaven, there are angels and devils and very little is cited according to Freud.

Phyllis McGinley, "A Report on Criminals at Large," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1952 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 7, 1952, p. 26.

Anthony Boucher

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I wish that I could express proper enthusiasm for Margery Allingham's ["Cargo of Eagles"] …; this is my final opportunity to review one of the great craftsmen of the English detective story. But this does seem to me to be one of her lesser efforts…. [It] was not a markedly interesting plot to start with and badly lacking in characters. There are good peripheral people, but the parties to the crime are vague sketches, and the action is slow.

Anthony Boucher, "Criminals at Large," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 28, 1968, p. 41.∗

B. A. Pike

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Albert Campion makes his first appearance at the Black Dudley dinner-table [in The Crime at Black Dudley (1929), published in the United States as The Black Dudley Dudley Murder]….

[Although] his persona is decidedly comic at first, there is yet implicit in the absurdity something of the seriousness of his later self….

Campion's eccentricities save him, in this first book, at least, from the danger of conventionality. There is, after all, nothing exceptional about his heroics at Black Dudley; the courage, the resilience, the resource, constitute the stock-in-trade of the most standard model of fictional adventurer. The special interest of Campion is that we do not...

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B. A. Pike

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Even though Albert Campion's emotional experience at the end of Sweet Danger points toward the time of greater responsibility and maturity, he has in fact already had his first taste of more serious commitments, in Police at the Funeral, published in 1931, two years before Sweet Danger….

Campion, as is fitting, is presented in a more sober light, and though he continues to prattle inconsequentially, causing both Uncle William and Joyce Blount to doubt him …, his accomplished handling of a difficult case is ample vindication…. [His] "faint inconsequential air" and facility for appearing "almost imbecile" at times are natural advantages of inestimable value.

...

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B. A. Pike

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Dancers in Mourning, like The Case of the Late Pig published in 1937, was the author's finest achievement up to that time, and it remains a classic of the genre. A superlatively subtle book, fraught with complicated tensions and crowded with insights, it is remarkable for its sustained emotional force, its adroit social comedy, and its scrupulous rendering of every development in terms of human personality. It is at once stylish and clever as a whodunit, and mature and satisfying as a novel of character.

The action centers on Jimmy Sutane [an actor]….

[Sutane] is immensely, universally popular. He has "grace and skill," and "ease and dignity," and his "sophisticated,...

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B. A. Pike

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Perhaps because the action opens in a women's fashionable house, and certainly because its two dominant figures are women, [The Fashion in Shrouds (1938)] has an obsessively feminine quality that sets it apart. Each of the principal women is at the top of her profession: Georgia Wells is a star emotional actress, and Valentine Ferris, Mr. Campion's sister, a major fashion designer. Both are important to the mystery, Val as its victim for a time, and Georgia as its "raison d'etre," but the author is at least as interested in them as formidably successful career women. In particular, she is occupied by the conflict between their worldly success and what she sees as their essential dependence as women.

...

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B. A. Pike

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Traitor's Purse (1941), Campion] wakes in a hospital bed, having forgotten not only what he is doing, but even who he is. Thus, he has literally to find himself, as well as the true nature of the threat to the nation's stability. His amnesia shapes the action, giving it an odd, unnerving, even at times a painful extra dimension. The mystery of Bridge interlocks with the mystery of his own life and personality, and as he pieces together both the plan to destroy Britain and an image of his habitual self, he is continually aware of 'his conscious needy present' and 'the secret forgotten part of himself.'

We are reminded constantly of Campion's double burden—the enormous weight of...

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B. A. Pike

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The central figure of Coroner's Pidgin (1945), published in the United States as Pearls Before Swine,] is Johnny Carados, an improbably gifted and cultured nobleman—a Marquess, no less—who dominates, in typical Allingham fashion, a gay, glamorous, and tight-knit group, "an odd, interesting outfit, the members all of an age and all highly intelligent … one of the most closely knit of all the little gangs which had characterised the social life of pre-war London."…

But things are not what they were, and though the war is all but won, this is London after the Blitz, and the darkness and devastation persist….

[If] the novel makes a statement about war it does so...

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B. A. Pike

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

More Work for the Undertaker [1948] is one of the richest works in [Allingham's] canon, within its chosen convention. The qualification is important, since, in some ways, the novel might be seen as a retreat from reality, its characters engaging oddities, its villains clowns, its killer a toy, with trivial passions and designs insufficiently motivated. For all its murder and attempted murders, its surface tensions and sinister underground traffic, Apron Street is cloud-cuckoo land, its atmosphere is festive, and the overriding impression is of humour, warmth, and charm.

But within her self-imposed limitation, all Miss Allingham's gifts come into play, and she achieves an entertainment of...

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