"Chemists employed by the police can do remarkable things with blood. They can weave it into a rope to hang a man.""He did not arrive at this conclusion by the decent process of quiet, logical deduction, nor yet by the blinding flash of glorious intuition, but by the shoddy, untidy process halfway between the two by which one usually gets to know things.""I am one of those people who are blessed, or cursed, with a nature which has to interfere. If I see a thing that needs doing I do it.""Mourning is not forgetting... It is an undoing. Every minute tie has to be untied and something permanent and valuable recovered and assimilated from the dust.""The optimism of a healthy mind is indefatigable.""When one kicks over a tea table and smashes everything but the sugar bowl, one may as well pick that up and drop it on the bricks, don't you think?"
Margery Allingham was born in Ealing, London in 1904 to a family immersed in literature. Her father, Herbert John Allingham, and her mother Emily Jane were both writers - he was editor of the Christian Globe and The New London Journal (to which Margery later contributed articles and Sexton Blake stories), before becoming a successful pulp fiction writer, while her mother was a contributor of stories to women's magazines. An aunt, Maud Hughes, also ran a magazine.
Soon after Margery's birth, the family left London for Essex, living in an old house in Layer Breton, a village near Colchester. She went to a local school and then to the Perse School for Girls in Cambridge, all the while writing stories and plays; she earned her first fee at the age of eight, for a story printed in her aunt's magazine.
Returning to London in 1920, she attended the Regent Street Polytechnic studying drama and speech-training, curing a stammer she had suffered since childhood; it was at this time that she first met her future husband, Philip Youngman Carter.
Her first novel, Blackkerchief Dick, was published in 1923 when she was 19. It was allegedly based on a story she heard during a sťance, though later in life this was debunked by her husband. Nevertheless, Allingham continued to include occult themes in many novels. Blackkerchief Dick was well received, but was not a financial success. She also wrote several plays in this period, and attempted to write a serious novel, but finding her themes clashed with her natural light-heartedness, she decided instead to try the mystery genre.
Her first work of detective fiction was a serialized story published by the Daily Express in 1927. Entitled The White Cottage Mystery, it contained atypical themes for a woman writer of the era.
In 1928, she married Philip Youngman Carter, who collaborated with her and designed the jackets for many of her books. They lived on the edge of the Essex Marshes in Tolleshunt D'Arcy, near Maldon.
Campion and success
Her breakthrough occurred in 1929 with the publication of The Crime at Black Dudley. This introduced Albert Campion, albeit originally as a minor character. He returned in Mystery Mile, thanks in part to pressure from her American publishers, much taken with the character.
By now, with three novels behind her, Allingham's skills were improving, and with a strong central character and format to work from, she began to produce a series of popular Campion novels. At first she had to continue writing short stories and journalism for magazines, but as her Campion saga went on, her following, and her sales, grew steadily. Campion proved so successful that Allingham made him the centrepiece of another 17 novels and over 20 short stories, continuing into the 1960s.
Campion is a mysterious upper-class character working under an assumed name who floats between the upper echelons of nobility and government and the shady world of the criminal class in the United Kingdom, often accompanied by his scurrilous ex-burglar servant Lugg. During the course of his career he is sometimes detective, sometimes adventurer. He falls in love, gets married and has a child, and as time goes by he grows and matures.
As Allingham's powers developed, the style and format of the books moved on; while the early novels are light-hearted whodunnits, The Tiger in the Smoke (1952) is more character study than crime novel, focusing on serial killer Jack Havoc and leaving Campion a minor character no more prominent than his wife Amanda and his police associates.
Allingham suffered from breast cancer and died at Severalls Hospital, Colchester, England, on 30 June 1966.
Her final Campion novel, A Cargo of Eagles, was completed by her husband, as her final request and published in 1968. Other compilations of her work, both with and without Albert Campion, continued to be released until the 1970s.
In 1941, she published a non fiction work entitled The Oaken Heart which described her experiences in Essex when an invasion from Germany was expected and actively being planned against, potentially placing the civilian population of Essex in the front line. It is of particular interest because, the outcome of the Second World War at that point still being uncertain, it is an articulate and genuinely contemporaneous account of a moment of particular national peril. It is extensively relied upon, for example, by the historian John Lukacs in his study of Five Days in London, May 1940.
Although much of her work is largely forgotten today, the Campion stories and other mystery work remain popular, frequently reissued by publishers and vigorously traded second-hand. Vintage, the literary paperback publishers of Random House, began a reissue programme for Margery Allingham in 2004: so far they have reissued Sweet Danger, Mystery Mile, The Tiger in the Smoke, The Case of the Late Pig, Traitor's Purse, The Fashion in Shrouds, Flowers for the Judge, Coroner's Pidgin, The Beckoning Lady, Police at the Funeral, More Work for the Undertaker, China Governess, Hide My Eyes (December 2007), Cargo of Eagles and Mind Readers (September 2008). A film version of Tiger in the Smoke was made in 1956; a highly popular series of Campion adaptations was shown by the BBC in 1989-90, starring Peter Davison as Campion and Brian Glover as Lugg (available on DVD).
Several books have been written about Margery Allingham and her work, including:
Margery Allingham, 100 Years of a Great Mystery Writer edited by Marianne van Hoeven (2003)
Margery Allingham: A Biography by Julia Thorogood (1991); revised as The Adventures of Margery Allingham as by Julia Jones (2009). This is the standard biography.
Ink in Her Blood: The Life and Crime Fiction of Margery Allingham by Richard Martin (1988)
Campion's Career: A Study of the Novels of Margery Allingham by B.A. Pike (1987)