Sunday, October 31, 2010

Queens of Crime: Margery Allingham

Margery Allingham was born in Ealing, London, on May 20, 1904, the eldest daughter of Herbert J. Allingham and Emmie Allingham (née Hughes), and from a writing family which numbered John Till Allingham, the 19th century melodrama writer. The family relocated to Layer Breton in Essex when Margery was only five years old. Bought up in an atmosphere of ink and writing, she was trained by her father in the skill, and was given a study of her own and the plot of a fairy story at the age of seven, although it took almost a year of rewriting under supervision to complete her first tale. Shortly after, she launched her own magazine, The Wag-Tale, with a number of serial stories, poems and non-fiction features (and adverts) carefully written in an exercise book.

She was otherwise educated at Misses Dobson's (later Endsleigh House) in Colchester from the age of seven, although a severe attack of typhoid at eight meant that she had to remain at home and was taught by governesses until 1915 when she returned to school. Allingham described her education as "unconventional to begin with and rigidly so afterwards; not a very comfortable progression." So uncomfortable, in fact, that she developed a stutter that handicapped her for some years. She later attended Perse High School for Girls in Cambridge in 1919, and although she contributed to the school magazine The Persean and wrote two plays – Fairy Gold and Soldier of Fortune – which were performed by her fellow students, she was unhappy at the school and remained there for only just over a year. After that she had a private tutor and was sent to Regent Street Polytechnic of Speech and Drama. This was a particularly happy time for Margery as her elocution lessons helped her lose her stutter, and she was able to perform recitations.

Margery made her first professional sale in 1917, aged 13, a fairy story entitled "The Rescue of the Rain Clouds" which was sold to her Aunt Maud – Maud Hughes – for publication in Mother and Home. During the autumn of 1921, inspired by family sessions during their summer holiday on Mersea of 'playing the glass' and communicating with the spirits, she wrote Blackerchief Dick, a novel about piracy and smuggling on Mersea Island. It was published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1923.

Her early preference was for writing drama – she even sent one of her plays to George Bernard Shaw for his comments – and her play Dido and Aeneas was produced by her classmates in London in 1922. The play had so impressed her Aunt Maud that she was invited to write up stories for Maud's new paper, The Girls' Cinema, which published 5,000 word short stories based on movies circulating the cinemas.

Towards the end of 1921, Margery met Philip (“Pip”) Youngman Carter; he was one of the few male friends the shy Margery had made through school, and he first asked her to marry him in 1923. By coincidence, the cover of the American edition of Margery’s first novel was also Pip’s first artistic commission.

Her second novel, Green Corn, was turned down by both Hodder & Stoughton and Doubleday in the summer of 1924. Another novel, The Lovers, was abandoned in 1925 after only nine chapters. However, she continued to sell stories to Girls’ Cinema as well as verse and sketches to Joy (1925-28), occasional features to Picture Show, and occasionally completed stories for Aunt Maud’s husband, Edward Wood.

By the spring of 1927, Margery had completed her first crime novel, The White Cottage Mystery, which was serialised in the Daily Express, and she became engaged to Pip, whom she married in September of that year. After a brief honeymoon, they moved into a flat on High Holborn in the centre of London.

Her main output was still cinema stories and verse, although she also wrote for D. C. Thomson, one known series being "The Darings of the Red Rose" in Weekly Welcome (1930), about a girl who takes revenge on eight financiers who have ruined her family leaving a small red rosebud as her trademark. However, it was with her next novel that she was to achieve her first real success.

Written over three months, with Margery dictating to Pip or to A. J. "Grog" Gregory – an artist and caricaturist friend who lived with the Carters, The Crime at Black Dudley introduced her most celebrated character, Albert Campion. The book was immediately accepted by Doubleday, who asked for a sequel featuring Campion – initially created only as a minor character but who proved to be much more fun to write than the intended hero of the first book, George Abbershaw. Mystery Mile was rather more planned, with "Grog" now hired to do the typing (he is the A.J.G. to whom the book is dedicated), and was a Doubleday Crime Club 'Book of the Month' selection in the USA. The follow-up, Look to the Lady was published as The Gyrth Chalice Mystery in America and was also a Book of the Month selection.

In August 1931, Margery and Pip moved to Viaduct Farm in Chappel, Essex, and the strain on their finances led to her writing a trio of thrillers for Answers as well as her regular work on Girls' Cinema and her novels. These were later published by Collins under the pen-name Maxwell March. She also partly ghosted the autobiography of her brother Phillip Allingham, Cheapjack (1934). Her Albert Campion books were growing more popular (apart from a blip in American sales for Police at the Funeral), entertainingly escapist without sharing the usual stuffed shirt characters of her female contemporaries in the murder mystery genre. This was important, as Pip's commissions were only occasional and earned little and Margery herself was not always well, suffering from depressions and nervous irritability and overweight because of a thyroid deficiency.

In 1935, the Carters moved to D'Arcy House, in Tolleshunt D'Arcy, the old home of Dr. Salter, a long-standing friend of the Allingham family, especially Margery’s mother, Emmie. The house strained their finances even more. Girls' Cinema had folded in November 1932, replaced by The Film Star Weekly which ran until 1935 before being incorporated into Picture Show. Margery wrote short stories for The Strand and the Daily Herald and reviews for the Express. In February 1938, Allingham took stock of her career and noted that she had published about eight million words, including fourteen thrillers; the other 6½ million words had been penned for the Amalgamated Press, D. C. Thomson and various newspapers and magazines, the majority for Girls' Cinema.

During the war, she volunteered to work as secretary to the local billeting officer, soon taking over the full duties and D'Arcy House became the H.Q. to various brigades as they passed through Essex. These and other interruptions kept her output down throughout the war, although she experimented with a war thriller (Traitor’s Purse, featuring Albert Campion), an historical (Dance of the Years) and the non-fiction The Oaken Heart.

Pip had, early in the war, been conveniently barracked in Colchester with the Royal Army Signal Corps, later serving in North Africa before helping to create Soldier magazine. When he was demobbed, he lived in London working on the Daily Express and later The Tatler, relishing London social life. The small group that had lived at D'Arcy House split, and Margery was finding money a problem again, behind with tax payments and liable for surtax on her earnings, finding herself writing serial stories for American magazines simply to pay tax on earlier earnings. A heavy smoker, she was also suffering from bronchitis and sinusitis and the immediate period after the war was a miserable one for her. Her biggest success was to have her novels published in paperback by Penguin, which bought her to the attention of many more thousands of new readers. In 1950, Penguin published ten of Allingham’s novels in editions of 100,000 – a million copies in total. In America, paperbacks were replacing the old pulp magazines, providing a handy additional income, and, by 1953, sales from Penguin had reached two million.

Illness again slowed her output – only three novels in the 1950s – and there were more troubles with the Inland Revenue in the late 1950s. In 1958, following Pip’s resignation from The Tatler (which he had edited since 1954), the two created P. & M. Youngman Carter Ltd. to try and put their finances on a proper basis, which included renting a room in D'Arcy House (now company owned) on a bed-and-breakfast basis.

In the late 1950s, Margery’s life was further complicated having to care for her aging mother, Em, and Aunts Maud and Grace; sadly all three died within eighteen months of each other. Margery's health was not good throughout the early 1960s and in early 1966 she was hospitalised with a rheumatic virus infection; a tumour was detected and she was admitted to Severalls Hospital in Colchester. Responding well to irradiation treatment, she was allowed home to D'Arcy House in March; in June she suffered a stroke and was readmitted to Severalls where she died on 30 June 1966. She was buried at the churchyard at Tolleshunt D'Arcy.

Her final novel, Cargo of Eagles, was completed by her husband, who wrote a further two novels starring Albert Campion. A third was started but remained incomplete when he died in 1969.

About Margery Allingham
All I Did Was This. Chapters of autobiography, by Youngman Carter, with additional autobiographical material by his wife Margery Allingham (autobiography). London, Sexton Press, 1982.
Mr. Campion’s Career, by B. A. Pike. Bowling Green State University, Popular Press, 1987.
Ink in Her Blood. The life and crime fiction of Margery Allingham, by Richard Martin. U.M.I., Research Press, 1988.
Margery Allingham. A biography, by Julia Thorogood. London, William Heinemann, 1991; revised as The Adventures of Margery Allingham by Julia Jones, Golden Duck, 2009.
Margery Allingham: 100 Years of a great mystery writer. Thorndon, Suffolk, Lucas Books, 2004.

The Margery Allingham Society


  1. Good to see Margery Allingham featured. John Till Allingham not a very close relation (if at all)but 'Ralph Rollington' who published and wrote for boys weeklies in the 1880s was Margery's 'wild uncle John'.

  2. The Thorogood biography is very good, didn't realise it had been reissued recently!



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