Forgotten Author No 57: Margery Allingham

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The Independent Culture

I thought carefully about whether or not to include Margery Allingham in this column. She's hardly ever out of print, and many readers know her name, even if they haven't read her. However, very few of them have really got to grips with her books. The ones who have are passionate fans, and she has her own society which holds literary events throughout the year. For many years I had her wrongly pegged as an Agatha Christie knock-off, until I took time properly to read her prose.

What I discovered, and what I suspect everyone who becomes an Allingham fan discovers, is the extraordinary richness of her writing. It is allusive, colloquial, witty, bravura stuff – a window to a London mindset that is now so completely lost that it is sometimes best to have a copy of Brewer's Phrase & Fable beside your reading copy.

Allingham wrote her first crime novel in 1928 and continued for 40 years. She regarded the mystery novel as a box with four sides: "A killing, a mystery, an enquiry and a conclusion with an element of satisfaction in it." She also distinguished between her "right handwriting", which she did for pleasure, and her "left handwriting", which was commissioned. Her detective was Albert Campion, aristocratic and unassuming to the point of vacancy, so ethereal that he vanishes altogether in the film version of her most famous novel. Campion is supported by the usual sidekick and cops (and unusually smart wife), but there any comparison to other crime writers must end, because Allingham is unique.

The first time I read The Tiger in the Smoke , the book widely regarded as her masterpiece, I kept losing my place. The chase to track Jack Havoc, jail-breaker and knife artist, in the London fog is as densely confusing as the choking gloom through which he carves his way. There's a central image of a hopping, running band of ragtag musicians silhouetted in the murk that stays beyond the conclusion. It's a dark, strange read and possibly not the best place to begin – but now, many of Allingham's books appear to have vanished into that pea-souper. "I don't stick me 'ead into every nark's nest I 'ear of," says one character, and you want to hear the book read aloud, possibly by Sid James.

Allingham's exuberant, early writing gave way to a more mature, elegant style, but both are wonderful. Her short fiction is easier to find, but less evocative.