Crime Queen | Margery Allingham

Margery Allingham is one of our greatest mystery writers – and much of her early career was spent around Clerkenwell.

“Clerkenwell in the early hours of the morning is one of the most unsavoury neighborhoods in the whole of East Central London, which is saying a great deal,” wrote Margery Allingham in Look to the Lady, the third novel to feature her amateur detective Albert Campion. Fortunately, Clerkenwell is no longer the shabby neighbourhood she described in 1931. But her enduring crime stories – 20 books are being reissued – do provide a shadowy glimpse of the capital from an earlier era.

Allingham, born in 1904, was one of the queens of Golden Age detective fiction along with Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers. PD James was an admirer, Christie called her “a shining light” and she is JK Rowling’s favourite classic crime writer. Allingham was also a formidable chronicler of London, where she spent “10 years of exile” before leaving in the early 1930s for a rambling country house in Essex.

From their light-hearted beginnings, Allingham’s detective stories became more inventive – and more sinister. Perhaps her most famous novel was The Tiger in the Smoke, made into a film in 1956, which features a serial killer in the fogbound city. Its evocation of the London underworld is compared to Dickens. It’s no surprise that Clerkenwell entered her novels and short stories, because she spent her early married life in a flat near Hatton Garden (it was later destroyed during the Blitz). In one book, Campion’s cockney manservant Lugg complains about the price of a meal at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese in Fleet Street.

The Beckoning Lady, from 1955, features her gentleman detective investigating a dead body connected to his friends and their old life in EC1. Campion notices a “painted four-poster which he remembered from the studio in Clerkenwell quite 20 years before”; Allingham and her illustrator husband Philip Youngman Carter (“Pip”) had just such a bed in their flat. She described herself as “fat and furry” with contentment in their sociable home cluttered with books and artists’ materials.

In the Twenties, Allingham was one of the Bright Young Things and threw herself into student theatre. Although not academically successful, she had been writing stories since the age of eight. Herbert Allingham, her father, was editor of The London Journal, based in Fetter Lane, until he went freelance in 1909. He made a living by writing at a ferocious rate for cheap, popular periodicals. His daughter inherited these working habits and would sometimes write under pseudonyms – one lucrative serial was arranged by publisher Robert Hale, whose family firm is now in Clerkenwell (see Secrets article).

However, she was of a more artistic inclination than her father. They used to go on long strolls through the city streets, which fired her imagination. “The foundation of Margery’s intimate knowledge and love of London was laid during these walks,” writes Julia Jones in The Adventures of Margery Allingham.

She was a precocious talent: Allingham published her first novel aged 19, as well as churning out material for her aunt Maud, a pioneering female journalist on film magazines. She used to spend Sunday afternoons at Maud’s flat in Rosebery Avenue working on embroidery, writing and sometimes even completing her alcoholic uncle’s journalistic assignments.

The first Campion novel, The Crime at Black Dudley, appeared in 1929 and was essentially a co-production with her husband, who also designed her book jackets. “I dictated it to Pip who took it down in longhand and we argued over every word,” wrote Allingham. “It took us three months of hilarious endeavour. Never was writing more fun.”

Unfortunately, there was too much fun in the flat, which wasn’t conducive to a literary career. By the time she moved to Essex, she was a success but overworked and often unhappy. Although known for being rather jolly, she suffered from depression and her figure ballooned (later diagnosed as a thyroid condition).

She is JK Rowling’s favourite classic crime writer

She regretted choosing writing over having children and withdrew into her work. By contrast, Pip was such a party animal he ended up as editor of Tatler. He probably strayed from his wife, but he was attentive to her literary legacy. When she died in 1966, Pip completed an unfinished manuscript and wrote further novels featuring Campion. A couple of decades later, Peter Davison played the character in a BBC adaptation.

Allingham once said that a thriller should be “a work of art as delicate and precise as a sonnet”. Fifty years after her final novel, many of her detective stories still live up to these high expectations of the genre.

Margery Allingham’s reissued novels are published by Vintage.

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