|Agatha Christie, paying tribute to Margery Allingham shortly after
her death in 1966, said that, instead of asking whether she herself read
others' detective stories, people ought to ask her how many of those she
did read (since 'having the same bright idea concerning a murder will
result in an indignant complaint from readers') she was able to
remember. "Not very many, she answers, with that lemon-zest sharpness
she sometimes had. But, she added, Margery Allingham stands out like a
Margery Allingham was not quite so nice about Agatha Christie when she was interviewed some years ago for a magazine called Town, then owned by a young and ambitious Michael Heseltine, subsequently Mrs Margaret Thatcher's Minister of Defence. 'People are always lumping me in with Agatha Christie, she said then. 'But I could give her 15 years.'
She could indeed. Her first book came out when she was 18, in 1921, while Mrs Christie was almost 30 when her The Mysterious Affair at Styleswas published. It beat by one year Blackerchief Dick, a tale of piracy paranormally dictated to the adolescent Margery on the ouija board (or, if you prefer, by her subconscious), was at that time almost 30.
Margery Allingham was brought up to write, and lived all her life to write, saying charmingly of herself in middle age that she had a figure designed for great endurance at a desk. "My father wrote," she said. "My mother wrote, all the weekend visitors wrote and, as soon as I could master the appallingly difficult business of making the initial marks, so did I. Before quitting school at 15, she had written a play and acted in it. Then, she produced fiction for the Sexton Blake juvenile crime magazine and hammered out 'the story of the film' for something called Girls Cinema. In 1928, she produced a serial for the Daily Express called The Crime at Black Dudley and that brought to the world Mr Albert Campion.
At that stage, Mr Campion was something of a caricature. He had a falsetto voice and his teeth protruded, though, like Baroness Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel, he was terribly brave. When, in the following year, Mystery Mile appeared, he is a little more outwardly with it, perhaps because in that book he is seen to have as his 'man' the elephantinely commonsensical and lugubrious Magersfontein Lugg. With Police at the Funeral in 1931, Mr Campion tackled more serious matters and so, book by book, with sometimes a pause, sometimes even a slight recession, he becomes more and more responsible.
As, indeed, he should have been, if we are to believe what his creator once said of him to the distinguished novelist, Pamela Hansford Johnson. In her autobiographical book, Important to Me, published in 1974, she says that meeting Margery Allingham at a party and finding her 'surpassingly amiable' she asked what eventually became of Mr Campion, whose high social status beneath that nom de guerre is often hinted at in the early books. 'Oh,' Margery Allingham is reported as saying simply, 'he came to the Throne.' So was he or was he not His Majesty King George VI, who unexpectedly came to the Throne when his elder brother abdicated?
Whatever the truth, or party put-down, of that, we see Mr Campion at work after World War II (while George VI inhabited Buckingham Palace). And it is a yet more changed Campion we see. For the long last part of the war, Margery Allingham left him in abeyance while she buckled to with war work herself and produced, at the instigation of her American publisher, a factual book about rural Britain under fire, The Oaken Heart.
'He had changed a little,' she wrote of Campion in 1945 in Coroner's Pigeon, which begins with him just returned from unspecified work as an agent. Lying in his bath at his home in the flat in 'Bottle Street', Piccadilly, 'the sun had bleached his fair hair to whiteness, lending him a physical distinction he had never before possessed. There were new lines in his over-thin face and with their appearance some of his own misleading vacancy of expression had vanished.' In other words, the Wodehousian idiot of 1929 - the figure who had made young Agatha Christie wonder whether the Margery Allingham she had never met might be Dorothy Sayers, (whose Lord Peter then was fairly Woosterish), under a pseudonym — was to be the magisterial observer of human follies after 1945 .
And so the books came, in ever increasing sureness. In 1948, More Work for the Undertaker was published - that splendidly rich novel, replete with portraits of wonderful eccentrics, among them the Scotland Yarder, Charlie Luke. Listen to him describing the old doctor in the book:
"Comes out of his flat nagged to a rag in the mornings and goes down into his surgery-room with a shopfront like a laundry. Seven-and-six for a visit, half a dollar for a squint at your tonsils or a thorough once-over if he isn't sure, and a bottle of muck which does you good. Stooping. Back like a camel . . ."
It's a magnificently energetic portrait, both of the doctor and of Luke.
Then, in 1952, there was The Tiger in the Smoke, that battle between Good and Evil at full stretch, praised to the skies by many, though earning a sharp rebuke from Graham Greene.
And finally The Mind Readers in 1965 and, last of all, A Cargo of Eagles, uncompleted at her death in 1966 but put together, a shadow of what might have been, by her husband, the illustrator, Philip Youngman Carter.
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