I Love Albert Campion

Peter Davison as Albert Campion in the 1989 BBC tv series

Albert Campion is the private detective created by Margery Allingham who made his sleuthing debut in ‘The Crime At Black Dudley’ in 1929. Only he wasn’t the detective, and he didn’t sleuth, he was one of the suspects. He was a sort of bumbling, slightly sinister, cross between Bertie Wooster and Raffles. Allingham’s American publisher Doubleday felt the same way about Albert as I do and requested a promotion. He returned in 1930 in ‘Mystery Mile’, a book that put in place most of the ingredients that would make up his 39 year career; he was described as owlish, foolish, blank; he was part detective, part action-adventurer; the crime was partly murder and mostly the hunt for a mystically English object needed to restore to, or keep a family in, their rightful social position; his emotional life was romantic, repressed and (until he was married off) unrequited. 

I can’t explain what it is that made me love him. The first Campion book I read was ‘The Fashion In Shrouds’, about a series of society murders centering around his fashion designer sister Val (all of Campion’s closest friends and relatives would regularly turn up in his stories). For whole chapters the mystery would simply disappear, making it a novel of manners, a study of a small creative group of friends, like a less biting Evelyn Waugh. I thought it was terrible, I thought I was bored, but somehow I bought another book. Then I bought another. After about a month of raiding second-hand bookshops I had to admit – I was addicted. I’m not sure his author felt quite so strongly. It’s rumoured that in his early years he was a parody of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey. He was an aristocrat, although he was also estranged from his disapproving family; he found a wife and partner in Amanda Fitton just as Lord Peter found his Harriet Vane; Lord Peter had a valet, his ex-army buddy Bunter, Campion had an ex-burglar buddy called Magersfontein Lugg. 

Harriet Walter and Edward Petherbridge as Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey.

The early Campion adventures were larks. Even the sadness was youthfully bright. He was part of the roaring 20s, the depression didn’t seem to matter. England was a kind of Ruratania. He would battle jewel thieves, blackmailers, larger than life criminal masterminds. He would pose as Royalty, he would fight to the death, he would crack jokes about dead bodies, like a less macho, less focused, James Bond.

During the Second World War he changes. He becomes more serious. Allingham lived on the Essex coast. The county spent most of the war preparing for an invasion that mercifully didn’t come. Both the creator and her creation realised the value of home, and the pain of potentially losing loved ones. Although Albert would make the odd fatuous remark and many of the post-war books would have a holiday tone, he would never again be glib about death. In fact, he became quieter and more humble. He often stepped aside for the police. In his most acclaimed adventure, 1952’s ‘The Tiger In The Smoke’, he hardly features at all. The focus of the novel is on the crazed killer Jack Havoc, the tough realistic Inspector Charles Luke (a character reminiscent of Josephine Tey’s Inspector Grant) and the gentle, morally concerned, accidentally dangerous, Canon Avril. Having created the charismatic and fantastical Campion in pre-war conditions, it’s almost as if Allingham realised he was out-of-step with post-war reality, and unlike Dorothy L. Sayers, who fought Lord Peter Wimsey’s corner to the end, regretting the marginalisation of his rarefied milieu, Allingham has more progressive instincts; the aristocratic bright young things are gone, and they’re no great loss. What’s most important is how to live in this new world.

 In real life Allingham did not cope with the changes particularly well. She had mental health problems and wrote only six more novels between ‘The Tiger In The Smoke’ and her death from cancer in 1966. Her husband, and collaborator, ‘Pip’ Youngman Carter was unfaithful, although they remained a devoted couple (after her death Pip would finish her last novel ‘A Cargo of Eagles’ and went on to write two more Campion novels of his own). The couple had no children, but many bohemian hangers-on and a large house to pay for. Money worries were constant and the inland revenue a source of exasperation and fear.  A thyroid condition caused Allingham to be overweight for most of her adult life. As time wore on she found it harder to concentrate, her work has a weariness, it wonders about violence and fragmentation, the quality increases and the quantity diminishes. 

 Allingham is largely forgotten today. Of all the Golden Age detectives only Agatha Christie has truly survived. Allingham has been described as the true ‘Queen of Crime’ but that’s bunk. No literary Queen reigns in secret. Her novels mostly don’t quite work. They’re neither fish nor fowl. She wants to explore psychology and so wrecks the mystery by telling us up front that so-and-so is untrustworthy, sinister, dislikable. It may be true that in real life we’d always spot a wrong ‘un, but it kills the tension. Her plots are torn and convoluted in ways that ruin all the things they attempt to be : thriller, adventure, satire, spoof, realist, who-dun-it. The most consistently successful element is Campion’s romances. His aching heart. His surprised devotion to his much younger wife, and their child. His platonic begrudging affection for Lugg. There’s something messy, true and endearing about it. Perhaps that’s why I love him. 

 (For anyone new to Campion – he’s well worth reading – I would start with ‘Mystery Mile’, ‘Sweet Danger’, ‘Dancers In Mourning’, ‘The Case of the Late Pig’, ‘Traitor’s Purse’ and ‘The Tiger In The Smoke’. Then fill in the gaps.)