Caroline: Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
This is another episode of Queens of Crime at War, a series looking at what the best writers from the golden age of detective fiction did once that period came to an end with the start of the Second World War.
Today’s subject is a writer who started very young. She did her first piece of paid writing at the age of eight, when an article she wrote appeared in a magazine edited by her aunt. Her first full length novel was published when she was 19 and dozens more would flow from her pen in the years that followed. She was both prolific and private, preferring her house on the edge of the Essex marshes to the hustle and bustle of London literary life. A young teenager during the First World War, the renewed threat of conflict held great terror for her, and the way in which she faced up to that fear shaped the crime fiction she wrote for the rest of her life.
She is, of course, Margery Allingham.
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Margery Allingham’s life in the latter half of the 1930s was touched by tragedy, even before the War loomed large on the horizon. Her father Herbert Allingham died in 1936 after a decline of several months in a nursing home, and she felt his loss extremely keenly. She wrote at the time that “one of the two supports of my world was going” and mourned him not just as a family member but as a collaborator too. Herbert had been a journalist and editor, but early on in Margery’s childhood he had resigned from full time work on Fleet Street so that the family could move out of London to Essex. His subsequent career was as a freelance writer of pulp and adventure stories for adults and children, turning out reams and reams of fiction for serialisation. Herbert and Margery had not always seen eye to eye as she was growing up, but in the 1930s they corresponded frequently about their work and she regularly read sections of what she was working on to her father for feedback. At one point, he even gave her a present of several pages of worked out plot that she could turn into a novel. Poignantly, the last entry in his diary in November 1935 before he became too ill to write was “Read Margery’s story”. A few weeks after Herbert’s death, King George V also died, and the country was plunged into mourning. “Death seems to be everywhere,” Margery wrote in her diary. She was, in her own words, “horribly miserable”.
The novel that she wrote during 1936, Dancers in Mourning, did not suffer as a consequence of her bereavement. When it was published the following year, this theatrical mystery starring her regular sleuth Albert Campion outsold anything Allingham had published to date, and far outstripped the other anticipated crime novel that year, Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy L. Sayers. Dancers in Mourning received her best reviews to date, and resulted in Margery being included in Who’s Who for the first time — a marker of how her prominence as a writer was growing.
A couple of years later, in February 1938, Margery Allingham did what she called a “literary stock take”. She was 33 years old and had been writing professionally to a greater or less extent for 17 years. In that time, she had, she calculated, published 8 million words, 15 thrillers and dozens of book reviews, serials and short stories. That’s around 470,000 words a year, at a time when most novels came in at well under 100,000. She didn’t even include in her total the 125,000 words of the unpublished autobiographical novel she had written in her early twenties. By anyone’s definition, this was an impressive record for a writer, but crucially Margery looked at her total and despaired. “God only knows if it has been worth it,” she wrote in her diary at the time. “If I’d had 17 children instead at least my life would have been more exciting but I should probably still be disconsolate and even more overworked and tired. I’m so slow.” Her mental state was undoubtedly influenced by her chronic lack of money. Her husband, Philip Youngman Carter, was a freelance illustrator and as such did not have a steady income. He designed many of Margery’s own book covers, and those of other golden age authors, but it was not especially well paid work. Any advances or royalties that came in from her books went straight back out to pay off the debts that had racked up while she was writing them. This is important to understand, I think: for all that her detective has a lighthearted, even silly manner at times, Margery Allingham really sweated over her writing behind the scenes. She enjoyed her successes, of course, but it frequently made her miserable too.
Another crucial development in her writing life came in 1938 with the next Campion novel, The Fashion in Shrouds. Her editor in America, Malcolm Johnson, queried some aspects of the plot, and she stood firm. Whereas in the past a lack of confidence and need for money had made her entirely flexible with her stories, by the late 1930s Margery Allingham was pushing back against his attempts to keep her within the restrictions of what she considered the “Collins Crime Club” mould. “Malcolm can’t cure me, I’m doing it on purpose,” she wrote in a letter to a friend.
This book also solicited one of her most treasured reviews, from Torquemada in the Observer. “To Albert Campion has fallen the honour of being the first detective to figure in a story which is by any standard a distinguished novel,” it read. Torquemada was the pseudonym of Edward Powys Mathers, an influential crossword setter who also reviewed detective fiction between 1934 and 1939. Margery Allingham had struggled a little throughout the 1930s with where her novels should sit, genre wise — she rarely went down the route of the fully fair play puzzle whodunnit, and instead put Campion into plots that ranged between thriller, noir, comedy of manners and, occasionally, horror. Later in her life, Margery would refer to her books as “folk literature”, and that seems as apt a description as any. Her genre-crossing habits make her novels interesting and highly readable today, but at the height of the golden age of detective fiction, it meant that her publishers didn’t quite know what to do with them. Sometimes they appeared on the crime list, and other times not, and the marketing plans that worked so well with straight whodunnits didn’t quite do Campion’s adventures justice. To have a prominent reviewer praise her attempt to bring her detective out of the classic whodunnit and into a freer kind of novel was a great vindication to her. Although she famously regarded the mystery novel as a box with four sides – “a Killing, a Mystery, an Enquiry and a Conclusion with an element of satisfaction in it” — by the end of the 1930s, Allingham, like Sayers, was becoming interested in what else the detective novel could do beyond the format that had remained more or less set during the golden age.
Margery Allingham had been 10 when the First World War started. She spent most of it at boarding school in Colchester, experiencing blackouts, food shortages and separation from her loved ones. Her parents gave up their lease on her childhood home in Essex and in 1917 moved back to London in the hope that her father could earn more money by being closer to Fleet Street again. The so-called “East Coast threat” still loomed large in the young Margery’s mind though. As the part of England closest to the European continent, it was widely understood that it was the counties of Kent, Essex and East Anglia that would bear the brunt of a hostile invasion if and when it came. A family friend, Dr Salter, wrote in his diary about how he one day observed five or six German submarines hovering at the mouth of their local river, the Blackwater. The invasion was constantly imminent and zeppelin bombs fell nearby. She made her own childish plans for how she would resist if the enemy soldiers marched into the village: she was going to climb up into her secret hiding place in a tree that hung over the garden wall and drop a rock on their heads. Eventually, the Allinghams sent their children away from the danger to stay with their Aunt Maud in London; Margery’s fears of seeing her baby sister bayonetted receded somewhat as a result.
Still, once it became clear that war in Europe was looming once more, it was to these old thought patterns that Margery Allingham returned. “War meant death to me; a soldier galloping up on a fat white horse to kiss my tearful nurse goodbye under the chestnut trees, and then death,” she wrote in her diary in the late 1930s of what happened in her childhood. In 1935 she and her husband Philip (or Pip, as he was known) had stretched their finances to breaking point and bought Dr Salter’s old house in Tolleshunt D’Arcy, an Essex village just a few miles from where she had grown up in Layer Breton. She was once again right in the path of potential invasion, on the edge of the Essex marshes where it was assumed Hitler’s army would make landfall on their way into Britain.
This time, there was no question of evacuation. Margery and Pip were very involved in the life of their small village; they weren’t going to abandon it now. Pip chaired a meeting of the new Air Raid Precaution committee in the village hall. Margery got involved with the plans to host children evacuated from London, and wrote an impassioned letter for publication in the press about how the people fleeing the towns should be treated by their rural hosts as fellow humans in need, not as an inconvenience foisted on farms and villages by the government. Civil defence plans were put in place, and the Allinghams’ house became the headquarters for the local area. Their dining room was given over to it and everyone seems to have very enthusiastically papered the place with maps and installed fire buckets everywhere. Essex is a low, flat country and their village is near the coast — on still days they could hear the guns booming across the Channel. The so called “parachute menace”, which left many British people convinced that disguised Nazi operatives could be falling from the sky any minute, was a constant source of alarm.
Despite all of this, Margery later described her mood during this time as “disgustingly exuberant”, as long as she able to be out doing practical things that helped people. She even described the war as her “salvation”, and said that she had not felt so enthusiastic or glad to be alive since she was 16. Pip, too, was eager for action, and dissatisfied with the lack of invasion for his local civil defence force to repel, joined up properly, going into the Royal Army Service Corps. Carving out the time to sit alone at her desk trying to write crime fiction while all of this was going on was difficult for Margery. She had nothing against what was at that time being called more generally “the Literature of Escape” with capital letters, and said at one point that “a few hours escape into another, less personal world is not to be sneered at”, but still found it hard to settle to steady work on her next Campion novel, Traitor’s Purse. Rumours of invasion came regularly — sometimes it was to the south in Kent, at others further up the east coast. It all turned out to be nothing, but in the moment each instance had to be taken seriously. It seemed highly plausible that Hitler would try to invade Britain, just as he had Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands and France. Fisherman in Margery’s village took their boats across the North Sea and the Channel to help evacuate civilians and soldiers. “It was an odd life,” she would reflect later. “I was always hoping that the end of one thriller would not overtake me before I had finished the other.”
After the break: the war in fiction and fact.
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Margery Allingham published only two crime novels during the Second World War. The first, Traitor’s Purse, was incubated in those uneasy early months when everyone in her orbit feared that Nazi boots would soon be on Essex soil. For Allingham, there seems to have been no question in her mind as to whether the war would make an appearance in her fiction. Other writers, like Christie, might choose to produce mostly “Literature of Escape”, but it was not for her. The war was consuming all of her attention, from the practical work she was doing in the village to the political news that flowed into the house from friends and family elsewhere. There was just no space in her mind for anything else.
Traitor’s Purse is an unsettling, disorientating book. Albert Campion, the assured but slightly ridiculous gentleman sleuth of Allingham’s 1920s and 1930s novels, wakes up in a rural hospital in the early days of the war with no knowledge of who he is or how he got there. He does, however, have an overpowering sense of purpose — there is something vitally important that he must do, he just can’t remember what it is but it is somehow connected to the number 15. From overheard conversations and things other people says to him, he gradually begins to piece together his mission, but the effect of his amnesia is to entirely destabilise the comforting certainties of the golden age whodunnit — the detective who doesn’t even know his own name is hardly the reassuring, god-like intelligence that used to be common in such books. It’s not hard to imagine that readers when this book was first published in 1941 might have been familiar with a version of what Campion is feeling, of the overwhelming compulsion to Do Something without really knowing what is going on.
The case that Campion is engaged upon also has very strong ties to the early years of the war in Britain, when the fear of Nazi espionage tactics was running high. Margery took this national obsession and put it in her novel in the form of a network of enemy “quislings”, a word that entered the contemporary vocabulary after Vidkun Quisling, the titular prime minister of Norway during the German occupation of the country. It had quickly come to mean “traitor” or “collaborator with the enemy”, and in Traitor’s Purse Allingham imagined a way in which a secret cabal of such people in Britain might attempt to weaken the country to clear the way for an invasion. In the US, it had the rather literal title of The Sabotage Murder Mystery, which gets the idea across arguably too bluntly. The novel was mostly well received, but some reviewers criticised the quisling plot as far fetched. Margery had the last laugh on that, though — her biographer Julia Thorogood records that about 15 years after the book came out, someone sent her a newspaper cutting about Operation Bernhard, which was a genuine Nazi exercise that aimed to do exactly what she had imagined in the novel and destabilise the British economy by introducing counterfeit currency.
Coroner’s Pidgin, Margery Allingham’s only other novel published during the war, is also concerned with life during the conflict but reflects how much things have changed since Traitor’s Purse was published. Coroner’s Pidgin was finished in the spring of 1945, when Britain had been primed to believe that the end of the war was nigh ever since the D-Day landings the previous summer. It opens with Campion in his old flat in central London, home from his mysterious intelligence work abroad for the first time in three years, taking a bath. He is enjoying his break from duty, but keeping an eye on the clock so he can be sure to catch the train that will take him to the country where his wife is awaiting him. His peace is disturbed by his old manservant Lugg lugging a body up the stairs and into the flat, and, inevitably, the detective instinct proves too powerful and he has to investigate what has happened. Campion’s reluctance to get involved speaks to the weariness created by many years of wartime conditions, when it was perhaps best not to go seeking out problems beyond the ones you already had. People have adjusted since the uneasiness reflected in Traitor’s Purse — part of what makes this case difficult to solve but interesting for the reader is all of the little dodges and wheezes that the characters have invented to make life during WW2 a little more palatable, or profitable. Perhaps most tellingly of all, the arrival of a body in a flat is not a cause for horror or alarm, as it might have been pre 1939. All three of the living characters who appear in the first few pages of the book are entirely resigned to the presence of death on the sitting room carpet. The body is an inconvenience that might prevent Campion from catching his train. That’s what the title suggests too — make this the coroner’s problem. That’s what he’s for.
The most moving, and most intimate, writing that Margery Allingham did about World War Two is not in her fiction at all, however. It’s in a volume of non fiction called The Oaken Heart, which was published in 1941. This strange little book grew out of her correspondence with her American publisher, Malcolm Johnson, who had the idea that she should write at greater length about what life was like in a small English village during the early years of the war. He thought it might resonate with a lot of readers, which is always a good thing for a book idea, but that it also could help turn the tide of American public opinion towards a desire to join its allies across the Atlantic. He saw it as “the sort of book that would make the ordinary person here realise what war means”.
The project appealed to Margery. She had found it hard to settle into writing fiction amid all of the war work going on around her at home, and had felt during the writing of Traitor’s Purse that spinning mystery stories was not a sufficiently helpful activity for the times. Writing about the war with the aim of changing American minds about it felt a lot more urgent and worthwhile. She did find it challenging to write about real people, though, rather than characters of her own invention. “Everyone in it is alive and living on my doorstep,” she lamented part way through the process.
Her biographer Julia Thorogood commented that reading The Oaken Heart is “like hearing only one side of a conversation”, and that feels to me like an accurate representation of the book. It grew out of letters that Allingham wrote, and it still feels a little like she is expecting a reply that never comes. But her descriptions of English village life in 1940 are finely drawn and compelling: she builds a subtle picture of a community drawing together in the face of the threat, but that still has all of its usual points of friction and humour. Her won village of Tolleshunt D’Arcy becomes “Auburn”, but otherwise very little is changed, not even the names. This line from a chapter about the early warnings of potential poison gas attacks is typical of her tone througout.
“In Auburn we don’t care for drama very much. Certain of our good ladies have a flair for it, and generations of them presiding over illnesses and accidents have brought the whole thing into disrepute; so it happened that when real drama appeared it shocked and irritated us before it stimulated us.”
Above all, what comes through is Allingham’s abiding love of her home, and of the countryside. Even allowing for a certain level of exaggeration designed to play upon the heartstrings of American readers, it’s there. “Can we stand ten years of this war? I think we could in Auburn,” she writes towards the end of the book. Surrounded by these people, she seems to say, I can do anything. This is a very different Margery Allingham, who sounds sure of herself and her place in the world. She’s a far cry from the under-confident writer of 1938, who thought that having written 8 million words in 17 years was a poor show.
The Oaken Heart was Allingham’s biggest commercial success to date, although not in the way that anyone involved in it had expected. In America, which was intended to be its primary audience, it struggled to find many readers at all when it came out in September 1941. But in Britain, it flew off the shelves, selling 13,000 copies in the first two months, which was remarkably good for wartime conditions. For comparison, the first print run of Traitor’s Purse earlier the same year had been 5,000, and the first three Margery Allingham novels that came out in 1929, 1930 and 1931 had initially sold about 1000 copies each. Pip later wrote home to his wife from his military service in the Middle East that people there kept coming up to him to ask if he was really the “PYC” in The Oaken Heart and then being delighted when he confirmed that he was, indeed, that Philip Youngman Carter.
The invasion that Margery and her neighbours dreaded never did come to pass. The tranquil, desolate stretches of the Essex marshes around Tolleshunt D’Arcy remained empty of enemy soldiers. Nothing was ever the same again, though. The Allinghams’ happy household of bright young writers didn’t reform or go back to normal after the war, and Margery lived a much more solitary life post 1945. The events that she documents in The Oaken Heart didn’t just change the English countryside forever. They changed Margery Allingham too.
This episode was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find details about all the books I mentioned in the description for this episode or at shedunnitshow.com/queensofcrimeatwar. I publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.
If you’d like to help me get to this year’s pledge drive goal of 100 new members of the Shedunnit Book Club, head to shedunnitshow.com/pledgedrive. I’ve just published a bonus episode for members with some extra material from the series so far, so join now if you’d like to hear that. You can do that at shedunnitshow.com/pledgedrive.
Shedunnit is edited by Euan MacAleece. Original music by Martin Zaltz Austwick. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin. The podcast’s advertising partner is Multitude.
Thanks for listening. The next episode in the Queens of Crime at War series will be out in a week’s time.