So as muttered some posts ago, I’d recently checked out two books by Margery Allingham featuring her rather elegant upper-class-but-not-nobility sleuth Albert Campion. Being only familiar with a couple of TV adaptations of Allingham’s work, and then only glancingly, I didn’t know much going in besides vaguely remembering Campion’s nature as well as that of his batman/assistant/dogsbody Magersfontein Lugg, whose utter gorblimey wotcher-guv’nor characterization makes Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins seem subtle. This isn’t to say that he’s not a fun character, I just was wondering how much of the joke Allingham was in on.
And that could apply to all of what I’ve read, frankly. Not being familiar with the series I had no idea whether the two books I read — More Work for the Undertaker, written a couple of years after World War II, and The Beckoning Lady, from the mid-fifties — were considered top of the line, middling or down in the dumps, and now having read them I’m even less sure as to how they would be considered. I enjoyed them with a furrowed brow most of the time.
Both books are in many ways of a type — More Work is a city mystery, that city unsurprisingly being London, while The Beckoning Lady takes place in the countryside, and there are various colorful characters in both that are meant to be full on colorful characters from both, with an emphasis on the eccentric (in the former story it involves a whole set of siblings and associates, in the latter an overlapping series of families, servants, wanderers and more besides). As there’s a larger cycle at play there’s references in both books to cases and persons that presumably were discussed in detail in earlier works — The Beckoning Lady in particular appears to draw on an earlier book or two, though a quick scan of this bibliography doesn’t make it any immediately clearer — but can still be enjoyed on their own. And if you approach them with the desire for a ‘good British mystery’ in a stereotypical sense, you’ll get ’em — dastardly doings, thrilling moments and everything wrapping up and all’s right with the world, mostly.
But both practically revel in an insularity that’s partly inevitable, partly intentional. How to describe it is a bit difficult, but I’m reminded of a comment a coworker back at UCLA said to me shortly after the release of Loveless, where he felt like he was looking through a picture frame and glass pane at a photograph but there was so much dust and grime over it that nothing was clear. In this case, the photo is clear but barely anything about the characters are, or more especially their interactions — one has the feeling that everyone is playing a series of roles rather than ‘being themselves,’ whatever that might be.
In part this can be the result of the nature of stock characterization in a chosen form — Allingham’s work isn’t merely a mystery but a British mystery, and it’s a VEDDY British mystery, even as the characters Allingham clearly favors are the eccentrics, the oddballs and the more colorful types (to an extent, but more on that later). People are poor in her books but nobody seems desperate, even as financial ruin and hard times hang over their collective heads — everyone seems to muddle through well enough and nothing feels ultimately sad or crushing. (In More Work, all it takes for one character to snap out of what seems like a go-nowhere future is a makeover, a weird precursor to The Breakfast Club or so it seems.) For this reasons, there’s always good drinks around somewhere and Campion never seems once fussed, his clothes never creased — he might frown but he’s never mussed up once. Meantime there’s always friends, associates and more to assist him — not to mention his wife Amanda, an interesting character in her own right (among other things she designs planes and is a total gearhead) but who always seems a bit stagy somehow.
It’s this staginess which is hard to get hold of in these works of Allingham’s, the sense that everyone’s in a performance. Asking for realism is a bit much for me to require, I realize, given a lot of what I have enjoyed over the moons, but for every well-observed personal detail that really does seem like a personal detail — the way that the character of Tonker in Beckoning Lady, for instance, happily does his best to ever avoid having to do any actual work — there’s very rarely a sense that these characters come alive when they’re not actually on the page. It’s a problem but not entirely insurmountable.
There are two things which are near fatal, though — one is the sense needing to keep things as they are, a rampant conservatism with a small c that underpins the work. This perhaps is the nature of such a piece — mysteries by default are tales of disruption where the solutions put things back into place (at least for the survivors if not the dead) — but for all the eccentricities and bits of flair and so forth at work, as noted Campion’s world is a world of assumed comforts, loyal servants, stabilities. In More Work he’s almost sent away to be a colonial governor, in Beckoning he regards the tax problems friends face with a sense of concern that’s never tempered by a sense of catharsis — he’s in a good spot, he knows it, and he never seems to question it, and neither do Allingham’s narrators.
Having been to England a few times now, it’s easy for me to see Allingham’s portrait of Britain, though one which takes note of the times as they happen, to be one fixed and immutable, where things swirl around a bit at the corners but keep on keeping on. It’s incredibly hard for me to imagine him walking down the streets of modern London; he’s a figure of a past age who was on the verge of being undercut sooner than he thought, though hardly an absent one entirely, both in the UK and in the perceptions of Anglophiles overseas.
Then there’s the flat out jarring moments, as with this bit of overhead conversation from Beckoning that Campion encounters between, again, two reasonably well-off people, in this case college boys, one American and the other British, the former talking about how marriage seems only to clutter up a life best lived for aesthetic reasons alone:
“…I cannot help but think that life is extraordinarily simple if it is approached with deliberation. Why fall in love at all? Is it so necessary in a civilized person?”
There was a minor upheaval behind the table and Mr. Campion, who felt a fool as well as a cad for listening to something which made him feel so antiquated, nerved himself for an experience. The child was about to speak.
“I say, hold on old fellow,” said George Meredith in a very high-pitched British middle-class voice indeed. “Think of the Race.”
So they were all right, and so was humanity, and Mr. Campion turned down the room again…
It’s a bizarre, strange little moment, one whose meaning I can’t quite parse. The capitalization of ‘Race’ and the lack of any other context for its use, either in the conversation or in the plot itself, strongly suggests a troubling interpretation — at the least some sort of social mission to keep the ‘English’ race going in a formal ‘marry-make babies-continue society’ fashion, at the most a suddenly vicious desire to ensure that a very white ‘Race’ indeed, and a higher social class at that, keeps on going, a belief Campion appears to adhere to closely, in noting not merely that the two boys are really ‘all right’ but that ‘humanity’ has been kept on track. But I’m just not sure what is being implied here, and Allingham’s lack of dwelling on it seems to indicate that she figured most of her audience wouldn’t dwell on it much either — that there was an accepted order to things, and that Campion, married, a father, well-off, represents it and approves of its continued existence, that he’s not in danger of finding himself outdated.
The other near-fatal thing is perhaps just more crucial on a mystery front, though — the resolutions. In both cases rather than seeing the satisfaction of a puzzling plot fully wound up and resolved, or alternately a messy sprawl resolved in an way that matches said sprawl, both books left me going “…huh.” It’s not that the solutions (which of course I won’t go into) weren’t unclear, but both relied on bizarre coincidences, utterly obscure contextual/historical details where probably not even Allingham’s own audience would have had to hand and, in one case, fortuitous genetics regarding the thickness of a skull (don’t ask). No thrill of resolution, no reflection on how there’s no easy endings in reality, more of a shrug of the shoulders and a scratching of the head. There’s a slight twist ending in Beckoning, but a twist of the sort that just makes one feel even more irritated with the conclusion.
Part of me almost wonders if these books were intended as strange satires, but there’s no real sense that they were — not unless she was a queen of keeping a stone face about her narratives, not without the realm of possibility. They feel like curios, not without value, but leaving one grasping a bit with frustration for the reasons I’ve outlined. I’m glad I did read them but I have to say I can’t easily see myself pursuing any more offhand — sometimes once, or in this case twice, is enough.