Two recent republications of mystery novels by Margery Allingham (1904-1966) show the broad range of writing she was capable of.
In addition to the 30 Albert Campion novels and more than 10 other works, Allingham also published three novels under the pseudonym of Maxwell March. One of those was The Shadows in the House (1936), which was published in the United States under the title of The Devil and Her Son. The U.S. title is a much better fit for the story than the original British title.
Mary Coleridge is a young woman working as a teacher. She has no family; her only relative had died, and through the kindness of her aunt’s friend was she able to eventually procure a position as a teacher. She lives in a boarding house in London, where she meets and goes out with a young man she’s growing more and more fond of. But one morning he explains he must leave and not see her again, and she loses her job on the same day.
She’s saved by a rather brash newcomer to the boarding house, a young Australian woman named Marie-Elisabeth Mason, who’s come to England to visit relatives she’s never seen and to make a career for herself on the stage. She has absolutely no interest in meeting the relatives; they’ve never even exchanged pictures. She talks Mary into taking her place for the visit, and with no other possibilities, Mary agrees. And off she travels by train to meet the family matriarch, Eva de Liane; her husband, Ted; and her two sons, Bertram and Richard. Richard is in a bad way and is dying, Mrs. De Liane tells Mary, and unless he gets married, and married to Marie-Elizabeth, the family will lose the estate.
If it sounds wildly improbable, it’s because it is, this almost-Gothic novel sets in the 1930s. A naïve damsel-in-distress, tricked into marriage, her well-being and increasingly her life threatened; an evil old woman with servants to do her bidding; and what becomes an impossible love story. In Allingham’s hands, this wild, almost unbelievable story becomes virtually impossible to put down.
Coroner’s Pidgin, first published in 1945, is one of Allingham’s Albert Campion novels and, in fact, one of her best Campion novels, which is saying quite a bit, since she didn’t write a bad one.
Campion is on home leave during World War II, and in fact it’s his first home leave in several years. While his activities remain undefined, he’s been working as something like a spy behind enemy lines on the continent. But he’s home, taking a quick bath before he changes and takes a train to see his family. As he sits in the tub, he hears people coming up the stairs of his London flat on Bottle Street off Piccadilly. When he dons a bathrobe to find out what’s going on, he finds his old butler Magersfontein Lugg, a dowager duchess, a young woman, a young American soldier – and the body of a dead woman deposited on his bed.
He greets his guests, if that’s the right term, and the group is joined by the dowager’s son, an old friend of Campion’s and something of a war hero. As it turns out, the body was actually found at the son’s residence, and his mother grabbed Lugg to help move it. No one expected Campion to be home.
Superintendent Oates of Scotland Yard soon joins the story, along with several other police investigators. Campion is prevented time and again from catching his train, and becomes a most reluctant investigator of the death. But as with everything else, this isn’t an ordinary murder (as if murder is ever ordinary). This murder has connections to a nefarious plot involving art treasures and the Nazis.
And it is just like Allingham to add a romance and keep the reading guessing to the very end.
Two very different stories – an almost Gothic and a classic Campion – show how well Allingham could capture a reading audience and keep it.
Top photograph of Forde Abbey in the United Kingdom by Annie Spratt via Unsplash. Used with permission. The house is similar to the one described in The Devil and Her Son.