Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Golden Age of Detective Fiction

When I saw the Classics Circuit was doing a tour of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, I wanted to participate because I am a big fan of the genre. But what to choose? I have read all of Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Patricia Wentworth, and less prolifically of a few others. I decided it was time to try Margery Allingham, known for her detective, Albert Campion, one of those sleuths who hide their intelligence behind a deliberately foppish and dimwitted exterior. "Allingham 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.' Once inside the box, she felt secure: the genre gave her the discipline she felt she needed, while allowing her imagination full play to provide the 'Element of Satisfaction.' This she abundantly did from her first crime novel in 1928 to her last in 1968." Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 77: British Mystery and Thriller Writers 1920-1939.

One reviewer wrote, "Miss Allingham's strength lies in her power of characterization, in her striking talent for painting the social background against which she shows her characters, in her skill in the use of words whereby she paints so vividly the scenes she describes." Guardian.

The Crime at Black Dudley (1929) is the first book to feature Campion (and I always insist on starting at the beginning of a series). The setting is classic: a house party in a mysterious house in a remote English town and a lighthearted game that unexpectedly turns into murder. However, I found the plot and characters somewhat disappointing. Campion, at least in this book, lacks the charm of other "silly ass" detectives (and in fact, it is someone else who solves the murder). Yet Mary Jean DeMarr in In the Beginning: First Novels in Mystery Series believes that Campion's development as a character in later books "offers mystery readers a unique opportunity to consider what makes a mystery/adventure hero and what characteristics must be carried over from one novel to others in order to create the continuity necessar for a successful series... What inherent qualities does he have in his first appearance in Black Dudley and Mystery Mile that led Allingham to make him the focus of nearly a score of novels and a number of short stories?"

I definitely need to buy DeMarr's book, and she has convinced me to read more Allingham. My copy of The Crime at Black Dudley came from the Lexington library, so I am sure the rest will be readily accessible.


Anonymous said...

As you point out, Campion was really not the star of "The Crime at Black Dudley." He only matured in the later books. The first one was also more thriller than mystery. I think the best Campion books are probably "Flowers for the Judge" and "Police at the Funeral," although many prefer "Tiger in the Smoke," where - again - Campion really is not the central figure.

Teresa said...

I read a bunch of Allingham years ago but forgot most of what I read so I'm wanting to read (and reread) them all. I haven't read this one, but I did read Mystery Mile last year, and although Campion is more silly ass than anything in that book, I could tell there's something going on beneath the surface. Just enough hints at depth to make me want more Campion!

Thanks for joining the Circuit!

Aarti said...

I have Allingham on my wishlist, so I'm glad you read this for the circuit! I am impressed by all the authors you have read! Have you tried Georgette Heyer's mysteries? She wrote in the same timeframe.

Katrina said...

I'm like you and try to read books in order, to see how things evolve over time. Sayers is my favourite but I'll try Allingham. I've got a feeling that I read some when I was very young, but my brain needs a nudge. Thanks for the review.

CLM said...

I was thinking that Heyer's mysteries (which come in good and poor, not nearly as good as even the weakest historical) were the best comparison to this particular Allingham, although I am sure Les is right that Campion is more compelling in later books. Wentworth is also a good comparison although somehow I have always had a huge weakness even for her generic characters.

Thanks for the comments!

Laura said...

Thanks for introducing me to Allingham. Although I've heard of Campion, I haven't read any of Allingham's work yet. Like Aarti, I'm impressed you've read so many of the authors on this circuit!

Cat said...

I haven't read any of Margery Allingham's but I think with any of these authors it is best to start at the beginning to appreciate the development of their sleuths.

Teresa said...

I am a great fan of Allingham and have read all the Campion stories, some several times.

Campion, like Sayers' Lord Peter,not only grows on you with time, but grows as a strong character with time. Allingham apparently decided to make a course change with this character after the abdication of Edward VIII. The early books always have an underlying theme that Campion is actually a member of the Royal family, perhaps from the wrong side of the blanket. Her descriptions of Campion, minus the glasses, could always be equally accurate for the then Prince of Wales. These references cease after 1936. I definitely think that Campion becomes a much more real character after this.

Hope you will try a few more Allingham.