2023 marks the 100th anniversary since the publication of the first novel by Margery Allingham, and this presents an opportunity to celebrate the life, career, and legacy of a writer with a strong Essex connection.
Allingham was one of the leading figures of “The Golden Age of Detective Fiction”, a period between the two world wars where the crime genre rose to great prominence and when many of the key characteristics of the classic crime story were established. Allingham along with her contemporaries Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Ngaio Marsh became collectively known as the Queens of Crime, representing the four women who came to dominate the genre.
At the height of her fame, Allingham was considered one of the best writers of her generation, with The Sunday Times remarking that “Margery Allingham has precious few peers and no superiors…” She wrote 26 novels, over 60 short stories, 4 novellas, as well as numerous radio scripts, reviews, poems, and articles, yet she has become somewhat lesser known with the passing of time.
Born in London, Allingham frequently visited places like Clacton with her family for holidays. In 1909 the family moved to Layer Breton and in 1934 Allingham herself purchased D’Arcy House in Tolleshunt D’Arcy, her home for the rest of her life. The Oaken Heart (1941) provides an autobiographical account of village life during the Second World War and its impact on rural life, with Tolleshunt D’Arcy fictionalised as the village of Auburn, covering the period from 1938 until 1940. Originally marketed towards American audiences, it achieved great popularity in Britain.
Nearby villages would feature as character names in her stories including: Lord Tollesbury in “The Perfect Butler”, Lord Coggeshall in “The Wink”, Mr Wivenhoe in The Fashion in Shrouds, and Stukely-Wivenhoe in Sweet Danger- such names would appear unremarkable, except to those who know Essex. The influence of the Essex and Suffolk landscape and its buildings would frequently appear in Allingham’s writing, demonstrating a love and interest in the local area.
Best known for crime stories, Allingham’s first novel was a story of pirates, smuggling, and forbidden love on the Essex coast. Blackkerchief Dick: A Tale of Mersea Island (1923) was published when Allingham was just 19. The island became the Allingham’s holiday destination of choice with one holiday seeing the family take part in a séance in which the spirit of a smuggler told his tale.
Mersea Island would feature in several other Allingham novels, including the Mystery Mile (1930) whose titular island is a thin disguise of Mersea Island but set in Suffolk instead. It is easy to see why Mersea and the surrounding landscape was so captivating. It is a place that is both beautiful and eerie, the island being cut off from the mainland at hightide heightens the mysterious nature of such a location and the possible activities and adventures that could be had there.
As a crime writer, Allingham created the detective Albert Campion, who would feature in 19 novels and several short story collections. His first appearance is brief as a foolish party-crasher in The Crime at Black Dudley (1929) yet Campion managed to endear himself to both Allingham and her editors who demanded more of him.
In Campion, the reader is presented with a detective who went against the traditional expectations of a detective. The early novels have Campion as a caricature of the well-to-do gentleman with Allingham referring to him as “a silly ass”, reputedly he was conceived as a parody of Dorothy L. Sayers’ gentleman detective Lord Peter Wimsey. Eventually he matures as the stories progress, becoming part-detective and part-adventurer, assisted by reformed criminal Magersfontein Lugg.
Campion, who is somewhat of an enigma. Indeed, various clues are placed throughout the stories about Campion’s true background and identity, with revelations of potential links to royalty! Allingham believed that crime and adventure stories were a “literature of escape”, and that a sudden death was an intriguing method to “make characters reveal themselves” combining entertainment with the macabre.
The novelist and critic A. S. Byatt summed up Allingham’s ability by stating that “One of Allingham’s great gifts, or skills, is the conveying of intent human energy, the opposite quality of the languid young men […] Allingham can do both good and evil convincingly. But her nature is generous – her readers must understand as well as shudder at these truly nasty persons.”
The true horror of the nasty person is perhaps best seen in the darkest Campion novel The Tiger in the Smoke (1952), where a killer uses the London smog to evade capture and commit their crimes. It was adapted into the film Tiger in the Smoke (1956) starring Donald Sinden- although the character of Campion was omitted.
Campion would make it onto the screen first portrayed in a 1959 BBC series by Bernard Horsfall, then by Brian Smith in a 60s BBC anthology of detective stories, and by Peter Davison of Doctor Who fame in the BBC series Campion which ran for sixteen episodes between 1989-1990.
When Allingham died in June 1966 from cancer, her fellow crime writer Agatha Christie wrote that “Margery Allingham stands out like a shining light. And she has another quality, not usually associated with crime stories, elegance.”
The University of Essex Library holds the Margery Allingham and Philip Youngman Carter Collection as part of its Special Collections. The Special Collections contain over 70 individual archives with primary source materials and collections covering a variety of subjects and time periods and are available for teaching use and research by appointment.
The celebration evening at the University of Essex on Friday 27 October (5pm to 8.30pm), represents a chance to highlight and rediscover the brilliance of Allingham to existing fans and those curious to learn more. The event will include short talks by experts and fans of Allingham and crime fiction, as well as items on show from her archive- many of which have never been on public display.