Caroline: The lifespan of a sleuth from the golden age of detective fiction is difficult to estimate. These tend to be creatures of extremes. Either they exist for a concentrated period of time before the writer moves on to other characters or literary endeavours, as Dorothy L. Sayers did with Lord Peter Wimsey, or they endure for decades and dozens of titles, often barely ageing to allow for this surreal lifespan, such as in the case of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot.
It is much rarer to find a detective who matures and changes with their creator. But in the case of our subject today, this is what happened: Albert Campion first appeared at the height of the interwar popularity of the classic crime novel, in 1929, and his last outing from his author’s pen was a posthumously published book from 1968. Over nearly four decades, he reflected her changing interests, life circumstances, ideas about crime fiction and approach to writing. He is not frozen like some of his contemporaries but variable and surprising, and thus sometimes hard to appreciate upon just one or two chance encounters.
Today, we’re exploring the evolution of Margery Allingham.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton
I think the best place to start is at the beginning. Who was Margery Allingham in the late 1920s when she sat down to write the first Albert Campion book?
Julia: She had just got married. She was in her mid twenties and that was in 1927.
Caroline: This is Julia Jones, author of a wonderful biography of Margery Allingham, and someone with a great deal of experience in tracing the way that Albert Campion and his creator changed over the years they spent together. An important thing to understand about this young, newlywed version of Allingham, Julia says, is that she was not a novice writer by any means.
Julia: The thing is that she’d been writing for years. I mean, she’d been writing since she was a child. And this is the other aspect of Margery’s professionalism that she was born into a family where writing was what you did to earn your living.
Her father was a prolific serial story writer. And until the first Campion and long after, you know, she did every sort of what you might call mechanical writing. So her Aunt Maud who was a great lady and, and ran a film in the days of the silent films.
She ran a film fan magazine and one of Margery’s jobs was to go to a screening and then write up the story so it could be in the magazine. So, you know, she was absolutely aware of writing as just, you know, a thing you did to earn your living.
Caroline: I think when we hear that someone is born into a family of writers we imagine something a bit like Bloomsbury, with people wafting around penning a highbrow novel every few years and drawing on their extensive literary contacts and perhaps their private income in order to make ends meet. The Allinghams weren’t like this at all, though. Margery had absorbed from her father, a former journalist turned newspaper serial writer, that in order to maintain a steady income as a writer one must be professional, consistent, versatile and prolific. And so to have free time on one’s honeymoon to write whatever you fancied? Well, that was quite a luxury, if you were an Allingham.
Julia: But that marked a change in her life, that she’d got married. It was like a sort of holiday treat to write The Crime at Black Dudley. She and her husband Pip had swapped houses with her parents Herbert and Emily.
So the older ones had gone to London to stay in Marge and Pip’s flat and see their friends and catch up with editors because they were writing as well. And Marge and Pip were in the country in Letheringham in Suffolk. And yes, it was a fun thing to do, and it feels like a fun thing to do.
Caroline: But the real shift in Margery’s ideas about fiction came earlier, before she ever put pen to paper on the first Campion novel, The Crime at Black Dudley.
Julia: But she had had this extraordinary experience early when, in her sort of mid, late teens when they were having a holiday on Mersea Island, and they were doing which is in Essex, but you know, it’s a place where, where you might rent a house for the summer and, and have a holiday.
And they were doing that thing where you, it’s like a séance. You have the glass and you ask, you put your fingers on it and you ask questions and you have letters all round. We used to do it, played at school sometimes. But when Margery was doing it, and Mersea Island is quite an evocative place.
I think, again, sense of place is important not just as a setting, but almost as a character sometimes that the place it is, yeah, it’s putting something into the story. So, you know, the book wouldn’t be the same if it was somewhere else. You see what I mean? But so Mersea Island yeah, East Mersea. Quite spooky.
Where Mehalah, Sabine Baring Gould’s very strange sort of murder story was written. And they, they were doing this and the glass was, they were interviewing smugglers and excise men and a witch and an innocent, murdered heroine, that sort of thing. And when Margery was there, you know, it just spelled out, you know, page after page of interview answers.
And those pages, you know, are actually in the Allingham archive. You know, it was a real thing. So I’m only going on about that because in a way that’s where she perhaps began to see herself as not just somebody who writes to order you know. If her father or mother were writing a story, you know, it’s got to be 4,000 words and it’s got to be there by next Thursday.
And if it isn’t any good, you’ll have to close up the story or extend the story or whatever. Whereas this was inspiration. You know, this was a story coming from outside and that’s quite a different thing. You know, it makes you feel that the characters actually exist in a different sphere.
They’re not just made up. They’re not cutouts, you know, they’re not like puppets. They have a vibrancy. They have a life of their own. And I think that must have been a very formative and extraordinary experience.
Caroline: The product of that extraordinary experience Margery had with the glass and the ghosts speaking to her on Mersea Island was Blackkerchief Dick, a novel about seventeenth century smugglers which was published in 1923 when she was just 19. When she came to pen her first detective novel, then, she had this other experience to draw on, beyond her family’s craft of writing fiction to order.
Julia: I think that’s sort of the other side of Margery and that’s where one can see her moving away from being a hack, a proper hack writer. Nothing wrong with that. People have got to be entertained. No, I’m not being snooty. And one thing I have learned about studying Margery’s family is not to be a literary snob.
So gradually as she became more comfortable knowing what she was doing, as it were, she was very clear about the sort of two sides of her writer’s job. One was to entertain her reader. And the other was to say something for herself.
You weren’t just entertaining the reader and you weren’t just looking at your own psyche the whole time. You had to do both in the sort of novel she was writing.
Caroline: That said, in The Crime at Black Dudley, we don’t really see Albert Campion fully formed or even clearly at all. He is a peripheral figure, a shadowy yet silly character at a country house party, who has often been said to mostly function as a parody of the aristocratic sleuths popular at the time, like Lord Peter Wimsey. Readers who try to get into Allingham by starting with the first Campion novel often find themselves confused or disappointed, I think, since her sleuth fails to take centre stage. It isn’t until Allingham’s next detective novel, 1930’s Mystery Mile, that we get more of a sense of Campion as a protagonist in the way we might expect from a crime novel of this period.
Julia: I mean, the next one, Mystery Mile, you know, I would, that’s one I would quite often recommend to people if they like something quite sort of, you know, quite period, quite flippant, you know, quite fast moving. That’s a good one. And if you like, that’s the first proper Campion, because Campion in The Crime at Black Dudley is just somebody else who happens to be in the house party. And he, for some reason, he just gets picked up and promoted to Mystery Mile.
Caroline: Campion wasn’t Allingham’s instant ticket to fame and fortune, though. Although the early books did well enough that the publisher was keen for more, her marriage and subsequent change in lifestyle demanded more of an income that detective fiction alone could provide. So, she did what her family had always done: she worked furiously at producing whatever kind of writing editors were willing to pay for.
Julia: The trouble was, so it was great that getting married was the start of all this. But getting married was the start of very serious expenditure. She found that she wasn’t just keeping herself. Once she was married and then she and her husband and various friends lived, they moved out to the country. So it wasn’t just good enough having, you know, a fortnight in the summer, they actually bought a house in the country suddenly, you know, she found that she was supporting herself, her husband, her husband’s school friends, you know, various people who looked after the household. So, you know, it was a big old thing, so the Campion novels didn’t begin to touch that. So she absolutely had to keep on churning stuff out for Aunt Maud. And she also wrote some sort of Edgar Wallace-type serial stories under a pseudonym. So, you know, her productivity in the thirties was quite startling. She really churned out the thousands and thousands of words.
Caroline: It was when working on a book about Margery’s father Herbert, Julia says, that she really began to understand the mindset of a working writer at this time.
Julia: That was when I really had to learn not to think that literature is all about, you know, the Bloomsbury set. Or, or you know, or Shakespeare or, or whatever. You know, literature, it includes fiction. And fiction is making things with words.
And you make different things with words for different people. And you don’t have to say that one sort is better than another thought. You just have to say they’re different. And what Herbert was doing with great conscientiousness and seriousness was writing stories for first and second generation literate people who didn’t want to improve themselves.
They wanted to escape. They wanted to be entertained. You know, that’s how they wanted to use their reading skills. And that’s what he gave them. And you know, he gave his whole, his whole seriousness to it, you know, he never looked down on his readers. And I think that was an important thing that Margery learned is, you know, you respect your readers.
Caroline: After the break: Who Margery became next.
So Margery Allingham came out of this incredibly workmanlike literary tradition, where fiction could be both written to order and be the product of sudden inspiration. And Albert Campion started out as a quasi-comic figure of a detective, before morphing over the next few books into something a bit more like a classic golden age detective, with recognisable cases and a relationship with the police. But with every new one that you read, you are aware that is not the same as what had gone before. There is far less of a feeling of comforting repetition with Allingham, I think, as with some of her crime writer contemporaries.
Julia: As a reader, the eye-opening moment for me was when I wasn’t just reading them randomly on a sofa with a glass of gin. It was when I read them in order. And then you see a fascinating development. And then you start to see the variousness of the novels. And towards the end of Margery’s life, somebody said to her, it’s like one big, super novel.
And she was incredibly pleased. She said, oh, at last, you know, somebody’s seen the point of it. You know, she really has left us with a sort of, you know, a proper opus of work. And then once you sort of know what there is, then you can dot about and you can think, well, I’m in the mood for something a bit bleak, or I’m in the mood for something a bit funny. And you can, you can try different, you know, you can have a different flavour depending what you’re feeling like.
Caroline: Here’s Julia with a sampling of some of those different Allingham flavours from the 1930s and 1940s.
Julia: There’s a period when she’s a very good domestic writer, and it’s observing the little personality quirks that people show when they’re living together. Those are the sort of mid 1930s, sort of like Dancers in Mourning, for instance. That’s a particular favourite. I might say that rather a lot, but because that’s one where the solution to the mystery, I mean, it’s maybe not a classic detective story, but the solution to the mystery lies in an understanding of who is the responsible person in that household and who is the person who actually doesn’t give a toss about anybody else.
And I think it’s rather brilliant when you can, when the end of the puzzle, if you like. You could have worked it out just from observing how people behave in situations. She’s much more sort of observational than cerebral, I’d say.
Caroline: Other themes recur throughout — there are novels that are very evocative of a particular moment in London’s history, like Coroner’s Pidgin, The Tiger in the Smoke, and The China Governess, but there are also ones set in the countryside that touch on English folk stories and customs, such as Look to the Lady and The Beckoning Lady. And Campion himself remains something of an enigma, with Allingham foregrounding particular aspects of his character in different novels as her plots required, and always holding on to the tantalising mystery of his precise origins. The rich contrast between all of this, Julia says, is part of what makes Allingham’s work so interesting to absorb in its entirety.
Julia: I think she’s a very, very intelligent writer and actually a very analytical writer because you can often see her books sort of balancing each other out. You know, that one book has gone quite far one way. And so the next book, she’ll you know, The Fashion in Shrouds, for instance, a very, very elaborate, almost too elaborate, very consciously, a novel. Yeah. And sort of asking you to look at it, you know, the beauty of its writing.
She decided in the end that she’d overdone the sort of beauty of the writing stuff. And so the next novel is Traitor’s Purse. When, you know, you bang the hero on the head and crack on. And, you know, there’s no time for that. They’re next to each other, they’re balancing each other, they’re talking to each other. And that’s I think why it was very, very interesting to, to look at them in the context of her life.
Caroline: They say that you should never meet your heroes, or even learn too much about them, for fear that they lose their lustre. But it was in the process of working on her biography of Margery Allingham — having been given full access to her papers by her younger sister Joyce — that Julia found herself growing closer to Margery with every imperfection that was revealed.
Julia: Of course you’ve got your own brain, your critical faculties absolutely alert. But you remember, you are there because you like it, because you admire it. So finding out, you know, discreditable things or you know, less, less glossy things actually makes you feel the humanity of the person. And, and Margery for me has actually become, she’s like a sort of, you know, an older sister that I never knew. I feel I learned so much from her. And so obviously writing about somebody like Margery who was both practising her trade but particularly in later life quite articulate about her trade whilst saying it’s actually, you know, it’s not something that you do from the head, you do from the heart, but she did have a very good head.
You know, you learn an enormous amount about how fiction works. And I love that. That was really great. But I also felt that she had an awful lot of wisdom about life.
Caroline: We can see traces of this in the non-fiction books Allingham wrote alongside the Campion novels. The Oaken Heart, her account of weathering the Second World War in an Essex village, is actually what first brought Julia into contact with the Allingham family, and a later work titled The Relay covers her experiences of caring for the older generation.
Julia: The most recent book I’ve done about Margery Allingham was one she didn’t publish in her lifetime is when she had to look after her mother and her elderly aunt and her aunt’s cousin when they were old and frail and cantankerous and had dementia and all that. And because Marge always liked to be observing and putting things into what she calls communicable form, she wrote a little book about it, which never got published, but Joyce gave it to me. And so when I was looking after my own mom in those sorts of situations, I pulled out Marge’s book written 50 years earlier. And, you know, I just felt I learned an awful lot about end of life and care of the elderly and, you know, so I gained far more out of it than I could ever have envisaged, ever.
Caroline: Because her detective Albert Campion is largely a cheery aristocratic sort and some of his adventures have comic touches, people sometimes make the mistake of assuming that Margery Allingham herself existed in a life of permanent sunshine and tea parties. But as Julia’s biography tenderly lays out, Allingham had her fair share of troubles — not least towards the end of her life, when she had to be sectioned in order to receive treatment for breast cancer. The Bright Young People, as the crowd of friends and neighbours with whom Pip and Marge had cheerfully cohabited in the 1930s were now no longer quite so bright or young. By the time she was working on later Campion novels like Hide My Eyes and The Mind Readers, Margery Allingham was herself a very different person to the one who had penned The Crime at Black Dudley on her honeymoon thirty years before. That’s why it can be hard to recommend a place to start for someone who has ever read a Margery Allingham novel before — there is no such thing as a typical one.
Julia: Because if you didn’t know her, you would almost think they were written by different people. But it isn’t. It’s because that, you know, one’s a different person when you are in your twenties than you are when you are in your fifties.
And with Marge, you can see her novels and that’s why she’s very clever with Campion. You know, they go along together.
Caroline: That, in a way, is what is so marvellous about Allingham’s body of work. It meets you where you are in life. This has certainly been Julia’s experience — from her early days reading the novels as a student at Bristol university, right up to now.
Julia: I feel that Marge has been, you know, from those first, so I suppose when I was at Bristol, I was, what would I have been sort of, I don’t know 19 or 20 or something. Something like that. And, you know, a gin and tonic and Sweet Danger or Death of a Ghost or something.
Absolutely wonderful. And now, you know, I’m I hope what Marge would call a jolly old fruit instead of a decaying pressed flower. She has these wonderful, wonderful, vivid ways of describing people. She’s an awful lot of pressed flowers out there, going brown around the edges.
She said, well, I want to be as a jolly old fruit. So, you know, I think, yeah, absolutely, Marge, you, you’ve got that. Who says that you didn’t. She didn’t get to be one really. She, it’s a sad life, really. But yet for somebody who, who gives over such a sort of, well, most of the time, warm and positive vibe, but my God, when you get to something like Hide My Eyes and she’s, you know, she’s looking at evil in Hide My Eyes. And that’s an absolute chiller, I think. So, so she wasn’t, you know, wasn’t sort of Miss Bucolic Bouncy gingham frock.
Caroline: Margery Allingham’s detective novels aren’t the perfect examples of the classic golden age detective novel, nor are they the intricate multi-layered puzzles produced by some of her contemporaries. They are patchy in places, a little chaotic, with flashes of brilliance that are unmatched. But above all, when you are reading them, you feel like you are in touch with someone who understood what it meant to try, and keep trying, to end up as a jolly old fruit rather than a dreary pressed flower.
This episode of Shedunnit was written and hosted by me, Caroline Crampton. Many thanks to my guest, Julia Jones. Her biography of Margery Allingham is available now through all good bookshops, and I would also highly recommend her book about Herbert Allingham, Fifty Years in the Fiction Factory.
You can find links to these books and all the others mentioned at shedunnitshow.com/theevolutionofmargeryallingham. I publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.
If you enjoyed this episode and you’d like to hear more from me, the best way to do that is the join the Shedunnit Book Club — this is the paid membership scheme that runs alongside the podcast and which will get you extra episodes as well as the satisfaction of knowing you’ve helped the show stay on the air. There will be a bonus episode soon with more behind the scenes details from Julia Jones about how she came to meet the Allingham family and write her biography, so members will have that to look forward to as well. Find out more and sign up at shedunnitbookclub.com/join.
Shedunnit is edited by Euan McAleece. Production assistance from Leandra Griffith. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin.
Thanks for listening.