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)
Ye Gods and little fishes! Thank you, Barbara — someone finally mentions Carol O’Connell on a crime fiction blog. I did actually see a VERY brief dismissal of O’Connell by someone who said they hadn’t actually read her novels — I suspected in that instance a case of what I might call feminist anti-feminism. I had on my mind only yesterday another ‘master’ (the inverted commas to encompass O’Connell) studiously ignored — Phil Rickman. Again, I saw one dismissive comment by a blogger, someone who hadn’t read him because his books have to with exorcism. The problem there was a mighty leap to the assumption that this is “The ghost did it” stuff, while in fact his extraordinary evocation of the Three Counties area of England (Hereford, Worcester, Gloucester) is the setting for fine plots that do involve a woman cleric, Merrily Watkins, who has been lumbered with the post of Offical Exorcist in her Church of England diocese (yes, they do have them), much to her deep dismay and even deeper scepticism. Rickman does write novels of the supernatural, sometime under pen names, but that’s another matter. People might at least look at a few reviews before junking the unread.
Barbara, I agree with Byatt re Allingham’s masterpieces, though I would add that some think Hide My Eyes (1958, I think) is better even than Tiger in the Smoke. I would also say that this is an instance where you really don’t want to start at the start. Her first few efforts could put anyone off for life, but Flowers for the Judge finds her getting into form. The four you say you particularly enjoyed are all favourites of mine also, plus Tiger and Hide my Eyes. I don’t think I could say with Byatt that she wrote better than Marsh. Apples and oranges, really. Allingham (who suffered from quite severe psychiatric problems) always had sudden dips in quality and sudden bouts of whimsicality and skittishness. However, when she was good, she was very, very good.
I’m glad you mentioned the first books. I had planned to say something about “skip the first few (and I concur that Flowers for the Judge is the best place to start), and don’t bother with Cargo of Eagles,” which her husband finished after her death – not to speak ill of the alive, but it just wasn’t the same.
And I almost mentioned Hide My Eyes, but I would have called it by the title I knew in the US, which was Tether’s End.
As for Carol O’Connell – really? I think she’s a peculiarly brilliant writer. I didn’t care terribly much for Bone by Bone, though there was a lot to admire about it and it was far more memorable than most of the books I review. But I loved Find Me, which will be one of my ten challenge books.
I have to say I could never get on with Carol O” Connell and have read three of her Mallory books. I found them too leaden and over discursive at the expense of the plots. I admit I started not from the first book so had not “bought into” the character of mallory as clearly many of her fans had done. (I always thought I was in a minority in not enjoying these so it is interesting to read Philip’s perspective, which he’s written about very effectively previously).
On Allingham, I think I have read a few of these when very young but can’t really remember. I read a lot of classic stuff then, eg Christie, Celia Fremlin, Hillary Waugh, Sayers, Crispin, Ngaio Marsh, Georgette Heyer (not her romances!), etc – and I am not sure if I want to go back to read any of them now as I suspect they would seem dated now given our culture of fast pace, sophisticated plotting and overt pyschological insight.
Well, at least you read O’Connell, Maxine. ( – : Your perception of them as “…too leaden and over discursive…” does surprise me, but there is a new one on the way and I shall keep that in mind as I read it. It occurs to me that Ruth Rendell’s non-Wexfords might also strike some readers in the same way, and that may be so without denying their quality. I chose Rendell as an example there because she makes for a good segue to another point — Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke. You might find it interesting to try that one, for it came as a bit of a shock when it was published, and still may for anyone who has been working through the Allingham oeuvre. The villain is known from the start, so there is scarcely need for sophisticated plotting in the ‘whodunnit’ sense, but there are profound mysteries to be solved re the relationships among the villain and the other very finely drawn characters.; the pace is not fast, for part of the power of the book lies in the slow ratcheting up of tension; but overt psychological insight — that there is aplenty, for the book is at bottom a study in the nature of evil. It’s always been highly regarded as a type of thriller and as a work that crosses genre boundaries. In 1952 it was a long way ahead of its time, although Bardin and Highsmith were moving in the same direction, and so too Rendell a decade later.