Albert Returns

Margery Allingham is a writer with whom I’ve had a complicated relationship over the years. My first encounter with her and Mr. Campion was the short story On Christmas Day in the Morning which I loved and still regard as one of the finest pieces of short mystery fiction ever written. It looked like I had found a new favourite writer and so I picked up The Fashion in Shrouds, her only easily available novel here at the time and said by the publisher to be one of the highest points of Golden Age detective fiction. It proved to be a massive disappointment; not that it was bad, you know, but it was too long and – a capital sin in my book – overwritten. Christie’s prose was sometimes exceedingly succinct but Allingham seemingly just couldn’t resist adjectives, adverbs, metaphors and sentences longer than needed. Being a charitable soul despite appearances to the contrary, I didn’t give up and I went on to try her other books, alas always with the same results – I liked Mr. Campion and the stories were nothing less than interesting but I couldn’t stand Allingham’s voice.

So she remained for years my least favourite of the Crime Queens – I found even Josephine Tey more readable, which is saying a lot – until I finally had my Damascus Road experience last year, once again thanks to a short story, Safe as Houses, which was part of an Allingham omnibus I had bought years before out of curiosity but hadn’t sampled until then. A magistral treatment of the « vanishing house » theme, it reignited my interest in her work and I followed it with more short stories and a novel, More Work for the Undertaker, that might have been one of the year’s best had Wikipedia not ruined it for me. (Whoever wrote the entry for that book must have held a grudge against Allingham and the entire crime fiction genre.) I was hooked. After years of a one-sided cold war I had finally made my peace with Margery, which is not to say that I completely surrendered: I still think she has a strong tendency in her novels to overwrite and so I tend to favor her short stories.

You can thus imagine my enthusiasm when I heard that Agora Books was reissueing the 1989 posthumous collection The Return of Mr. Campion. The people there were kind enough to send me a preview copy and I’m happy to report that my enthusiasm has turned out to be justified, as it is overall a fine collection though paradoxically not for the reasons one would expect. Only four of the stories therein are mysteries and feature Mr. Campion and while they’re never less than adequately plotted and solidly written, they don’t rank in my opinion with her best work in the genre. The remaining ones are in my opinion those that make the book worth reading as they display a range that sets Allingham apart from her sisters in crime. Horror for instance is not a genre I would have readily associated with her and yet she more than pulls it off with The Windglass, which I regard as the book’s high point despite its marked un-PC nature, and the more subdued but no less effective ghost story The Wisdow of Esdras. Another favourite of mine in a wholly different genre and a surprising item coming from an usually cheerful writer is Once in a Lifetime a grim, cynical tale that suggests love is much like Heraclitus’ river: You can’t step into it twice. Was this story influenced by her rocky though mostly happy marriage to Philip Youngman Carter? It would be interesting to know. The Yuletide tale Happy Christmas and the delightfully unclassifiable Kernel of Truth find Allingham in lighter mood, though always ironic.

The Return of Mr. Campion is probably not Allingham’s best short story collection and will almost certainly disappoint the hardcore fans of the bespectacled detective but others hopefully will find it both top-drawer entertainment and a nice sample of the many moods and abilities of a highly versatile writer who just happened to have chosen crime fiction as her primary – but by no means sole – outlet for expression.

 

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