Archive for Dorothy L Sayer

Cosies

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 1, 2023 by dcairns

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?