I got hooked on Margery Allingham’s Campion books last year. I think she rates a couple of posts at least.

Allingham created her fictional detective Albert Campion in her second published novel, The Crime at Black Dudley (1929), and kept writing about him the rest of her life, with a little time off for side-projects. On the face of it, Campion is a somewhat derivative character — he has a lot in common with Dorothy L. Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey and a little in common with Raffles, Boston Blackie, the Lone Wolf and the Falcon. He’s a very posh gent who hides behind a veneer of Bertie Woosterish silly-ass buffoonery and large horn-rimmed spectacles. But he’s also acquired the agility of a cat-burglar, the ability to pick locks, and the friendship and occasional assistance of many in the criminal underworld. He has an ex-con, Lugg, as manservant: a large, lugubrious man, he serves the same role as Blackie’s “the Runt,” while being his physical opposite.

The familiarity of these tropes adds to the books’ golden-age aura of cosiness, but in fact they’re quite unconventional as well. Allingham could write tight, fair-play mysteries when she chose to, but wasn’t satisfied limiting herself to that form. The Crime at Black Dudley plays like DIE HARD in a country house, with an unexplained murder happening during a hostage crisis. Campion himself is a supporting character and something of a deux ex machina. The only weakness is that the solution to the mystery depends entirely on information learned in the last chapter. I think if Allingham had constructed a real whodunnit and staged it against the backdrop of a group jeopardy thriller, she’d have had a really nice twist on the format. This would still be a good idea if somebody did it.

There was a TV show… I may have to check it out.

A couple of subsequent novels (Black Dudley and Mystery Mile) pit Campion against a Mabusean criminal outfit, “the Simister Gang” (Allingham’s character names tend towards the Dickensian). Police at the Funeral employs a really great twist, on a par with Christie’s genre-bending “the detective did it” and “the narrator did it” and “everybody did it” revelations. But by the time of Death of a Ghost in 1934, she’s experimenting with the structure: the killer is known halfway through the book, and the tension comes from the question of “How can we get any evidence to convict?” This kind of radical non-whodunnit approach recurs semi-regularly in MA’s books.

There’s also a bold streak of John Buchanesque adventuring, with international intrigues (Sweet Danger) and large-scale domestic espionage (Traitor’s Purse). The last-named is one of two wartime novels that hint that Campion has joined British Intelligence – these books also show the influence of American pulp fiction and noir. TP combines its wartime forgery plot (the Germans, it turned out later, really DID plot to destabilise the UK economy with forged banknotes) with a homegrown fascist villain suggestive of Cecil Day-Lewis/Nicholas Blake’s The Smiler with the Knife *and* an amnesia ploy suggestive of… well, everything. SOMEWHERE IN THE NIGHT and TWO O’CLOCK COURAGE and SPELLBOUND hadn’t been made yet, though, so it may well be a literary influence rather than a movie one. What were the hot amnesia stories in 1942? The second wartime book, Coroner’s Pidgin, uses the gimmick of the hero always being frustrated in his desire to sleep, eat or drink, and adds to this his desire to get away to his country retreat, for reasons not revealed until the rather moving final chapter.

Oh yes, Campion gets romantic interest, unlike a lot of his fellow sleuths (Agatha Christie turned down a lucrative MGM deal because they wouldn’t guarantee Poirot’s celibacy). Allingham works her way up to this gently, and it’s part of the gradual evolution that sees her hero becoming less eccentric and caricatured, and more real.

The best-known of the books is Tiger in the Smoke, which sidelines Campion so much that the film version was able to leave him out entirely. I’ve written about the movie before but want to revisit it. Seeing it in the light of the book makes its weaknesses more obvious but it’s still an interesting thing, with its own mystery about it. Again, a comparison with Nicholas Blake’s work is possible: when Claude Chabrol adapted Blake’s The Beast Must Die, he also found it convenient to delete the sleuth, Nigel Strangeways (originally inspired by the personality of W.H. Auden). The recent Ridley Scott-produced TV version reinstated Strangeways and made everything worse.

Several fans remark on Allingham’s work lacking the snobbery and racism of other golden age writers, but this is not entirely correct. There’s some throwaway antisemitism and hackneyed post-WWI evil Huns in the early books, the working-class characters tend very much to the caricatured (though Lugg is lovable), and Campion himself is discernibly High Tory, like his creator. But it’s true that the moments of discomfort are rare enough that the books are still very enjoyable, and Allingham writes a hell of a lot better than Sax Rohmer:

The fog had crept into the taxi where it crouched panting in a traffic jam. It oozed in ungenially, to smear sooty fingers over the two elegant young people who sat inside. They were keeping apart self-consciously, each stealing occasional glances in the same kind of fear at their clasped hands resting between them on the shabby leather seat.

I still have a ton of these to read. Maybe we’ll eventually get THREE blog posts out of them?


9 Responses to “Cosies”

  1. Mark Fuller Says:

    There was a 1950s TV series with Bernard Horsfall as Campion and the Eternal Cockney Wally Patch as Lugg, one of my favourite character actors; I would kill to see this but I believe nothing exists..

  2. bensondonald Says:

    The movie of the final Mr. Moto book, “Stopover Tokyo”, also erased the franchise sleuth.

    It’s been a while, but I remember enjoying the Campion series. Haven’t read any yet, so I don’t see what liberties were taken. They keep him in his early near-Wimsey persona and period.

  3. I listened to all of the Campion novels audiobooks starting during lockdown and ending last Autumn. I’m a big fan of the earlier ones up to the ones written in the late 40s. After that I found them patchy though still enjoyable.
    One thing I appreciated with the books is Allingham seems to have a more benevolent view of humanity than Christie, whose worldview strikes me as bleak. She seems to like her characters whereas I’m not sure Agatha likes many of hers.

  4. I’m not even sure Christie would even consider whether liking her characters mattered. Have just finished Sweet Danger — was wondering when Amanda would be introduced. Reading them all out of sequence isn’t idea but it adds further unintended intrigues.

    Tiger in the Smoke may be her apogee — I think the war deepens the emotion in her stories, but time performed the same function also. Have read one very late short story and it was nice, but so far the post-war Hide Your Eyes is the latest of the novels I’ve encountered.

  5. No, I don’t think Christie wanted her characters to be sympathetic, although some of them are. I do find a warmth in Allingham’s writing as well as a strong sense of humour, which I like as an antidote to many Golden Age detective novels.
    You’ve got to read The Mind Readers, a very loopy book.

  6. The Peter Davidson series includes “Sweet Danger”. It’s Amanda’s only appearance in the series.

  7. Both episodes of Mystery Mile are on YouTube. I glanced at it, and that was about enough. Not offensively bad or anything, but the feel of it is so redolent of cheap eighties UK TV, and so non-redolent of the 1930s, I can’t get into it. Peter Davidson is actually trying to do the Woosterish act, though, and I must check out Brian Glover as Lugg.

  8. bensondonald Says:

    Mystery Mile was the last broadcast, and to my eyes the tone was a bit different than then rest. My suspicion is that it was the pilot, set aside as they fine-tuned the approach for the next one. But granted, it does have that vibe I associate with the old Masterpiece Mystery series. In its way, nostalgic for evoking when it was made if not the era it presents.

  9. Campion does change in the books, of course, though perhaps not that rapidly. In his first appearance he’s an adventurer with a strong criminal streak. Though the books usually have a mystery element, he’s not exactly a sleuth in Mystery Mile or Sweet Danger, but by the time of Police at the Funeral, his fourth appearance, he can more or less act as one.

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