Archive for Reference

Julia Jones: The Adventures of Margery Allingham

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.

Jim Huang & Austin Lugar (editors): Mystery Muses

This is the third volume in Crum Creek’s – and Jim Huang’s – very successful succession of books focusing on mystery as a genre. The first one, The 100 Favorite Mysteries of the Century, was a compilation of booksellers’ recommendations of favorite mysteries written between 1900-2000. The second volume, They Died in Vain, was a collection of essays by booksellers about books that were unfairly overlooked. And this volume goes right to the source – the authors – to ask them who was an influence on their writing. Contributors Sandy Balzo (Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth Peters), Terence Faherty (Margery Allingham), Sharon Fiffer (Dorothy L. Sayers), as well as editor Jim Huang, will all be visiting Aunt Agatha’s to help launch this unique and entertaining volume. Below is an essay from the book, reprinted here with permission from Elaine Viets and the Crum Creek Press. I felt especially strongly about this one not only because it’s really funny, but also because Nancy Drew started so many mystery readers on a lifelong, enjoyable path. Thanks, Nancy!

Elaine Viets on The Sign of the Twisted Candles by Carolyn Keene (1933)

When I was nine, my mother gave me her Nancy Drew mysteries from the 1930s. She thought they were sweet, safe books. I thought they were like handing a bomb to an anarchist. They blew apart my ordinary life in Florissant, Missouri.

Parents never understand that Nancy was subversive. She had everything we wanted. Her cool dad bought her a car. Her mother was delightfully and distantly dead. She never said “You’re not going out in that getup, young lady!” Instead, Nancy had a motherly housekeeper who gave her good meals, good advice, and no criticism. Her boyfriend, Ned Nickerson, was there when she wanted him, but never tried to guilt her into giving it up on the family room couch.

Nancy and her “chums” were exotic. They used words like “quaint” and “ruse”. A dinner started with “jellied consomme” and ended with “nut bread, ice cream, chocolate layer cake”.

I had no idea what jellied consomme was, but I knew it wasn’t served in Florissant. Chums who ate three desserts knew how to live.

While I was in college, Nancy Drew disappeared from my bookshelf. I forgot about the titian haired sleuth – or thought I did. Years later, after I’d written my ninth mystery, I reread Nancy’s ninth mystery, The Sign of the Twisted Candles. I realized that Nancy was still with me.

I write chicklit mysteries. That’s a marketing label for women’s crime fiction. Whatever you call it, Nancy was the forerunner of chicklit. Consider these elements in Twisted:

~ Shopping. A man may blurt out a clue over a beer, but when a woman tries on a dress, she bares all. Shopping is not frivolous. It’s a female bonding ritual. Nancy invites the orphaned Carol into her world with, “Let’s go downtown on a shopping spree!”

~Interrogation Technique. Nancy does her questioning over tea. This cozy approach seems more sensible than the hardboiled method of beating and bullying.

~Women friends. Nancy goes everywhere with her female friends, Bess and George. They give her a mystery, then become part of the problem. They may lose an inheritance if Nancy continues her investigation. Nancy doesn’t abandon her friends in the name of misplaced honor. Chicklit women know men may leave them, but female friendship is forever.

~Cars. Hot cars are a chicklit staple. Nancy drove a roadster first, then late a convertible. Like many chicklit heroines, she has a heavy foot, but she can handle her iron – and change the tires.

~Attitude. Nancy is fearless. She orders around the “suave, sleek” crook Jemitt and attacks his abusive wife “with the speed of a panther”. Critics snicker because the police and other important adults listen to Nancy. But it makes sense. Nancy says at least five times, “My father is Carson Drew, the attorney.” That’s code for “We have money and influence.” Chicklit women know their own power.

~Men. Both Nancy’s father and her boyfriend are supportive. Chicklit women wouldn’t have it any other way. After a night with kidnappers and crooks, Ned says, “One thing that makes you so interesting, Nancy, is that I never know, when I ask you out, what mystery will come our way!”

There’s more – enough to fill a novel, or in my case, nine novels. And it’s not just me. In women’s crime fiction, a sarcastic male always asks the heroine, “Who do you think you are, Nancy Drew?”

The answer is yes.

Reprinted with permission of Elaine Viets and the Crum Creek Press.

P.D. James: Talking About Detective Fiction

This slim volume can easily be read in an evening, and for any lover of traditional detective fiction, it is practically a must. Not only for insights that James provides into the origins of detective fiction, but the insights it provides into James herself as a working writer, one whose intellect, at age 90 plus, is far from dimmed. In one of the early chapters, discussing the author G.K. Chesterton, she quotes the author of the Father Brown books as saying: “the only thrill, even of a common thriller, is concerned somehow with the conscience and the will.” She goes on to say (and this is really no surprise to any devoted fan of James) that this is her own personal credo as a writer.

While she delves as far back as Poe and Collins, and cites Kate Summerscale’s recent The Talented Mr. Whicher as an illustration of the fusion of a real life detective and crime with detective fiction, her real interest, unsurprisingly as well, is centered on the Golden Age writers who are her true ancestresses—Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and my own personal favorite, Ngaio Marsh. Agatha, for all her popularity and acclaim, is the one who gives her the most pause. Her respect for “Mrs. Christie” as James refers to her in the text, is genuine, but she still cites her characters as pasteboard, her plots as sometimes ridiculous, and yet James herself can’t help but admire Mrs. Christie’s ingenuity. When she writes about Agatha, it’s almost like she’s worrying away at a bone that particularly troubles her.

The nuance she finds in Sayers, Allingham, and Marsh is more to her taste, and in Marsh she sees the most gifted novelist fighting to get out from under the traditional genre restrictions. The affection she feels for all four women is undisguised, as is her love of detective fiction in general. She almost modestly relates how she herself forms her plots, and how she came up with the idea for her classic character of Adam Dalgleish. A brisk read, the book is full of flashes of insight, the most profound of which may be that in an unsettled society (as the Golden Age ladies were writing about between the World Wars) the reliability and comfort of detective fiction, with it’s tying up of lose ends, is beyond satisfying. It’s almost essential.

She also makes a case for the detective story as literature, one which for anyone who has read Ms. James’ A Taste for Death or Devices and Desires, probably doesn’t need to be made. The real thread in her book is how the detective story has grown into the detective novel, with a real love on her part of the past authors on whose work contemporary writers stand. While she cites authors as recent as Henning Mankell and Ian Rankin, her real look is a backward one. It’s also a breath of fresh air that may illuminate your own reading.