Margery Allingham, raised by writer parents, was practically pre-ordained to be a writer. From a very early age she was writing serials, and all kinds of other writing to earn her keep; but talent, of course, is a different animal altogether. Allingham is generally regarded as one of the major names of the British “Golden Age” of detective fiction, and certainly not without reason. Along with Agatha Christie (for whom Allingham had no high regard), Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L. Sayers and Josephine Tey, she’s one of the writers readers today seem to turn to again and again. Along with Dorothy Sayers, she was also the one to push the envelope of traditional detective fiction, eschewing the puzzle mystery in favor of the more psychological. To me her gift is even more basic: that of lovely prose. In that, Sayers included, she had no equal.
Her life can almost be divided into three sections: one, her childhood, where she was allied with her father, who became her first and closest editor; her young adulthood, when she met and married Pip Youngman Carter, an artist; and her more established life as a well known writer after the war. In the early days of her marriage, she and Pip collaborated on the novels, with Pip being a first reader and often the cover artist for the finished books (there’s a lovely example on the back of this very book). They were joined in a somewhat bohemian living arrangement by their friend “Grog”, who was also one of Margery’s first readers. This arrangement continued until the start of WWII, when both Grog and Pip joined up, and Margery, back at home, helped to organize evacuees and gas masks. When Pip came back home he lived and worked in London while Margery (as always, working away) stayed in the country house.
Margery’s life was one of hard work and accommodation. She was always accommodating her elderly female relatives and her husband, who never earned anywhere near the kind of money she did, though he expected the lifestyle she was able to provide. She was also working to accommodate the tax man—it’s startling to me to realize that a writer who sold as many books as Margery Allingham did was always scraping to pay her income taxes.
What shines in this book is Julia Jones’ portrayal of Allingham as a complete human being—for all her problems (she was probably a manic depressive)—she nevertheless sounds like a cheerful, intelligent person, a good friend, and a loyal neighbor. She sounds like the kind of person (perhaps unlike Dorothy Sayers) that you would want to know, and Jones even makes you wish you could reach back through time and give her a hand and tell her to take a rest. When she’s taken away in the ambulance for the final time her sister Joyce rushes behind, telling the driver to take great care of her “fragile” sister. Her sister Joyce, her eventual heir, was a steady and helpful presence in Margery’s life.
What’s key about Allingham is of course her contribution—a major one—to the mystery genre as a whole. While writing within the form (which she compared to the strictures of writing a sonnet), she pushed and pushed it with each novel. She wasn’t like Christie, turning out a steady novel a year, she needed time to percolate. Jones includes what I find to be a very true (almost prescient) assessment of the future of detective and mystery fiction:
“The killing we harp on is not just an ordinary killing; [it is] the new and main literary idea of this century. We seem to be catching up to the Greeks at last. Enormous amount of our stories have this second meaning or main meaning: the way one keeps on murdering one aspect of a person to give birth to another. We kill one relationship and another takes its place. We lose ourselves and find another.”
The more modern concept of the aftermath of a crime (which is what I think modern crime writers are tackling) had their genesis in this golden age. Dorothy Sayers, at the end of Busman’s Honeymoon, leaves Wimsey sobbing in his wife’s arms over the execution of a murderer that he unveiled. While certainly Allingham’s books can be enjoyed as pure, lively, entertaining and humorous crime fiction, there’s a little more to the books. Certainly Tiger in the Smoke, acknowledged by most people to be her best book, “transcends” the genre in modern parlance. We have many reasons to be grateful to Margery Allingham, the main one being many happy readings of her novels. And a grateful nod to Julia Jones for providing an illuminating look at a wonderful artist.