Margery Allingham’s Short Stories

Most accomplished crime novelists demonstrate equal facility with the short story – think, nowadays, of Rendell, Hill, Lovesey, Rankin and Barnard – and Margery Allingham was no exception. Yet her short stories have promped only limited discussion and they earn few mentions in the biographies by Julia Thorogood (Margery Allingham) and Richard Martin ‘Ink in her Blood’. Even the number of short stories that she wrote seems tantalisingly imprecise: Martin simply says that there were ‘over sixty’.

Nonetheless, the continuing appeal of those stories is evidenced by the fact that, a good many years after her death, two volumes of little known work have been published. ‘The Return of Mr Campion’, a book of previously uncollected items introduced and edited by Allingham’s friend J.E. Morpurgo, was published in 1989. Subsequently, The Darings of the Red Rose (summarised rather dismissively by Thorogood as ‘feminine detective adventures’) has been revived by those admirable American publishers Crippen and Landru.

Lately I have had an ideal opportunity (and excuse, if it were needed) to remind myself of Allingham’s work in the short form. Guy Fawkes Night in 2003 saw the Golden Jubilee of the foundation of the Crime Writers’ Association by John Creasey, aided and abetted by a few colleagues, including Michael Gilbert and Julian Symons. To celebrate this notable anniversary, the CWA decided to publish a special collection of short stories, old and new, highlighting the quality and diversity of members’ work in the genre over the past half-century. As editor of the book, Mysterious Pleasures, I decided that the contents should focus mainly on stories by winners of the CWA Diamond Dagger for a lifetime’s outstanding achievement in the genre, but that there should also be a few stories from current leading practitioners and from stellar names who were around during the CWA’s first few years.

It seemed natural to include a story by Allingham. She is seldom discussed in the context of either the Detection Club (Thorogood records that ‘she attended one or two…functions in the 1930s and scuttled home to Essex feeling inadequate) or the CWA. According to Thorogood, she became friendly with a handful of fellow detective novelists, including in particular two highly inventive practitioners, John Dickson Carr and Philip Macdonald, but socialising between crime writers was much less extensive in her day than it has become in recent years.

She was a member of the CWA for a few years only, but she contributed to a couple of its early anthologies. ‘Tall Story’ appeared in Some Like Them Dead, edited by Roy Vickers (1960) and ‘They Never Get Caught’ in Crime Writers’ Choice, again edited by Vickers (1964). At that time, and indeed until recent years, the contents of CWA anthologies largely comprised stories written and published long before (‘They Never Get Caught’, for instance, dates back to the 30s). Allingham was no doubt prevailed upon to lend support to the infant venture by allowing her name to be associated with it.

Although I was strongly tempted by ‘They Never Get Caught’, I decided to stick to my plan of including in Mysterious Pleasures stories which have not previously appeared in CWA collections. Casting my net more widely enabled me to renew acquaintance with several stories which have been much anthologised in the past. Enjoyable examples include ‘Evidence in Camera’, ‘The Border-Line Case’, ‘It Didn’t Work Out’ and ‘The Lieabout’. There is also some worthwhile material in ‘The Return of Mr Campion’ – unexpectedly, since such volumes tend all too often to sweep up odds and ends that have been neglected previously for very good reason. The stories in Morpurgo’s collection are admittedly a mixed bunch, but I liked especially a couple of the Campion tales. ‘The Case is Altered’ is a good take on the crime-at-Christmas sub-genre and ‘The Curious Affair of Nut-Row’ an agreeable piece of story-telling.

It is often forgotten that Allingham followed in the footsteps of Conan Doyle in that many of her early short stories were first published in Strand Magazine. Morpurgo notes that she was gratified that the magazine accepted six stories from her in 1936: ‘her gratification that this signalled her arrival as a serious writer – “me suddenly getting paid for quality instead of quantity” – was compounded by her gratitude to the current editor, Reeves Shaw – “he taught me about as much as my father had done.”’ But the story which I chose first came out in the magazine that supplanted Strand Magazine as the premier source of short detective fiction. Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, still going strong today, published several of her stories over the years. ‘One Morning They’ll Hang Him’ appeared in the August 1950 issue and it is one of the very best of the Campion tales. It opens with Chief Inspector Kenny calling on Albert and saying: ‘If there’s one thing that makes me savage it’s futility.’ He proceeds to explain his sour mood: one of those ordinary, rather depressing little stories which most murder cases are. There’s practically no mystery, no chase…nothing but a wretched little tragedy.’ But from this downbeat start, the story develops splendidly.

The only reason why I hesitated over picking ‘One Morning They’ll Hang Him’ was that it has found its way into numerous anthologies in the past. But in the end I could not – did not want to – resist it. I hope that this most recent incarnation of an excellent story will remind many readers (and perhaps even a few diehard fans who have hitherto focused almost exclusively on the novels) of Allingham’s talent for the short form, as well as engaging those who may be unfamiliar with her work. If new readers are tempted to explore the Allingham canon further, undoubtedly they have a treat in store.

This essay first appeared in Margery Allingham: 100 Years of a Great Mystery Writer (2004,) edited for the Margery Allingham Society by Marianne Van Hoeven