I thought I’d start off my contribution to the Sisters in Crime Book Bloggers Challenge by recalling mysteries that were among the first I read (apart from some written for children – I admit to cutting my reading teeth on Freddie the Pig, the first books I enjoyed; I was not an intellectual child). My mother was a great mystery reader and in my early teens I began reading from bookshelves filled with works by the women of the British Golden Age. My favorite of these authors was Margery Allingham, and rather than review a particular book, I’ll just remember what I felt when reading the Albert Campion series.
I thought I had some insightful things to say about it – then discovered that A.S. Byatt had already said them, better. So I will just say that what I enjoyed about the Albert Campion books was their inventiveness in the baroque worlds that she created and the bizarre yet believable people who inhabited them. Campion didn’t have a Jeeves-like gentleman’s gentleman, always correct and efficient; he had the lewd and low-class former burglar, Magersfontein Lugg. Campion (like Sherlock Holmes) has friends in places both high and low, and when he’s visiting the low ones, they seem to live in Dickens’ London. (Characters’ names are also Dickensian and wonderful.) His love interest and eventual wife, Amanda Fitton, is a strong enough character to hold her own. Her hair is red and her profession is engineering aircraft. In fact, all of the characters have enough energy to jump right off the page, and the worlds they inhabit are richly detailed if not particularly interested in being realistic. The books I remember enjoying particularly were The Fashion in Shrouds, The Estate of the Beckoning Lady, Police at the Funeral, and More Work for the Undertaker.
Tiger in the Smoke departed from the mold by focusing on a killer, with much of the relatively hardboiled story seen from his point of view; Traitor’s Purse was memorable for its dizzying setup – Campion has had a thump on the head and isn’t sure who he is or why he’s in the hospital, but knows there’s something terribly important he must do, so dresses in fireman’s coat, pulls an alarm, and makes his escape. It’s a wartime adventure, with caves and explosions, lots of running about, and so much suspense that when I first read it (I was probably twelve or thirteen) it felt like I’d taken a drug that made my heart speed up. Another unusual (but memorable) book in the series was The Mind Readers, a late entry in the series that had a science fiction flavor; scientists on “Boffin Island” are working on a device that makes those who have it telepathic; I don’t remember much about the plot, but I do recall that a couple of likeable schoolboys were involved.
I’m not sure I want to reread the books – there’s always the horrible possibility of falling out of love – but enough people continue to enjoy the books that there is a Margery Allingham Society (from which I borrowed her portrait) and in Fall 2004 Clues published a special issue on Allingham.
Similar women authors:
- Dorothy Sayers (though if Margery Allingham is like Dickens, Sayers is more like Anthony Trollope)
- Ngaio Marsh (also good at memorable characters and convoluted families and well-represented on my mother’s bookshelf)
- Carol O’Connell (in that Mallory’s world is also richly baroque and immensely detailed without being the least bit concerned with realism)