The Great Detectives: Albert Campion

The Great Detectives: Albert Campion

by Mike Ripley


His name is Albert Campion,’ she said. ‘He came down in Anne Edgeware’s car, and the first thing he did when he was introduced to me was to show me a conjuring trick with a two-headed penny-he’s quite inoffensive, just a silly ass.’
Abbershaw nodded and stared covertly at the fresh-faced young man with the tow-coloured hair and the foolish, pale-blue eyes behind tortoiseshell-rimmed spectacles, and wondered where he had seen him before.”

George Abbershaw had good reason to wonder, and worry, about the arrival of the “silly ass” Mr. Campion at Black Dudley, Suffolk in 1929 as, after all, Abbershaw was supposed to be the hero of the story. Sadly for Abbershaw, it was Albert Campion who endeared himself to his creator and, perhaps more importantly, to his creator’s American editor at Doubleday who liked Campion and demanded more.

The book was The Crime At Black Dudley (The Black Dudley Murder in the US), the first of eighteen Campion novels and dozens of short stories that were to flow from the pen of Margery Allingham over the next 37 years. Originally, Campion was intended only as a minor criminal in the supporting cast of Black Dudley. As the author herself said later in life, he was “a mere muddying of the waters.” However, within a few years, Albert Campion had taken his place alongside Hercule Poirot, Jane Marple, and Lord Peter Wimsey as one of the great detectives of the English “Golden Age” of crime writing and Margery Allingham was ranked with Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and Ngaio Marsh as one of the four great Queens of the English mystery. Many said, and still do, that she was the most versatile and entertaining of the four.
Educated at Rugby and St. Ignatius College, Cambridge. Embarked on adventurous career 1924. Name known to be a pseudonym, but real identity hitherto unpublished. Clubs: Puffin’s, The Junior Greys. Hobbies: odd. Address: 17 Bottle St, Piccadilly, London W1.”

Coincidentally, just as Lord Peter is meeting and wooing Harriet Vane, the equally well-bred Albert Campion is meeting his future wife, aircraft engineer Amanda Fitton. There are other points of comparison too. Wimsey is known to have spent time overseas on vague secret missions for the government. Albert Campion admits that he spent the war years overseas ” . . . on a mission so secret that even I never discovered what it was.” Where Lord Peter had a loyal butler/batman and occasional Watson in the person of Bunter, Albert Campion could boast the companionship of reformed burglar Magersfontein Lugg, whom he once described as a man ” . . . having the courage of his previous convictions” and who ” . . . in spite of magnificent qualities, has elements of the Oaf about him.” Where Wimsey is the second son of the Duke of Denver, Campion goes one better and lets it slip that his real name is Rudolph and it is not inconceivable that he is somewhere in line for the English Crown!

With these similarities in mind it might be easy to think that Campion was merely a spoof of Wimsey or that Margery Allingham was continually raising the stakes in some literary poker game with Dorothy L. Sayers (who, incidentally, lived less than a dozen miles from Allingham, although the two seemed to have very little to do with each other). Yet even though Albert Campion may have started life as a gentle prod at Lord Peter, Margery Allingham realised very quickly that she had created an extremely versatile character, one who eventually dominated her writing career and engaged several generations of readers. Despite Campion’s primacy in her writing, Allingham never allowed herself to fall in love with her character, a charge still levelled at Sayers.

Campion may have given the impression of an upper-class silly ass. With his easy, affable manner and blank expression, he seemed an unintimidating figure-as a policeman says in More Work for the Undertaker (1949), “a man of whom at first sight no one could be afraid. But when trouble would strike, he would reliably rise to the occasion with resourcefulness and intelligence, and, as Allingham was not one to stick to a formula, he was allowed to demonstrate his capabilities in a wide variety of adventures. Her novels veered from straightforward detective stories to gangland thrillers. Sometimes Campion would be centre stage, sometimes in the wings. On one notable occasion, in The Case of the Late Pig (1937), Campion is the first person narrator and the story starts in typical style:

“The main thing to remember in autobiography, I have always thought, is not to let any damned modesty creep in to spoil the story. This adventure is mine, Albert Campion’s, and I am fairly certain that I was pretty near brilliant in it . ..”

This was the genius of the mind behind Campion. When her purpose was simply to entertain, Allingham let Campion play the part to the full. When she wanted to make a serious point, Campion often, quite happily, took a back seat. In another wartime adventure, the 1941 novel Traitor’s Purse (retitled The Sabotage Murder Mystery in the US), Campion spends most of the book with concussive amnesia, unable to remember who he is, let alone what he is doing. The plot revolves around counterfeit currency being printed and spread by the Nazis to destabilise the British economy. The book was written in 1940 when it seemed Britain stood alone against overwhelming odds and the threat was very real. It was not until many years later that Allingham learned that there actually had been a plan called Operation Bernhard-masterminded by Himmler’s SS-to flood Britain with fake money. The mood of the country and the times was dark, so she placed her hero literally in the dark, under a blanket of amnesia.

In perhaps her greatest work, The Tiger in The Smoke (1952) (recently picked by The Times as one of the Best 100 Mysteries of the 20th Century) even the die-hard fan would admit that Campion played second fiddle to the character of Jack Havoc, the knife-wielding psychopathic villain. The plot concerns the recovery of Britain after the Second World War and the plight of a displaced generation of young men whose only skill is violence, personified in the character of Jack Havoc. It is a brilliant snapshot photograph of life in Britain in 1951, a portrait which would have been unthinkable in the immediate post-war euphoria of 1945 and which, in turn, was probably out-of-date by 1953. But in and of its own time it is simply stunning. Once again, Mr. Campion plays it straight, as the book has serious things to say about the state of the nation at that time. The academic Martin Priestman says of the book that it:

” . . . deliberately juxtaposes Campion’s upper-class world with that of a working-class criminal gang whose lives have been irrevocably warped by the Second World War, from which the country as a whole is seen to be only painfully recovering. The wider sense of a shattering of shared values is mirrored in a fracturing of the book’s form, in which the traditional detective imperatives of the whodunit are overshadowed by a thriller-like absorbtion in the career of the gang’s psychopathic leader Jack Havoc, a rough beast slouching energetically towards the Bethlehem of postwar welfare state Britain.”

It would be hard to envisage Lord Peter Wimsey (or Hercule Poirot!) involved in such an adventure, which not only works as an excellent thriller but can, and should, be re-read as a nugget of social history.

The versatility of Campion as a hero is what earns him his place among the great detectives and, at the same time, singles him out from most of his contempories. It was a factor Allingham recognised early on and noted in this introduction to Death Of A Ghost in 1934 (which is also on The Times’ Best 100 list):


This young man is an adventurer in the prettiest sense of the word, and his activities, which I have chronicled for some years, seem to fall into two distinct classes. There are those which have been frankly picaresque, as in the affair at Mystery Mile, the business at Pontisbright, published under the title of Sweet Danger, and several others. But now and again he comes up against less highly coloured but even more grave difficulties, as in the Cambridge tragedy, Police At the Funeral, and now the present story.

The two types of experience are distinct and it is perhaps surprising that they should touch the same person. However, most of us have a serious as well as a lighter side, and Mr. Campion is no exception to the rule.

The crime critic of The Sunday Times picked up on and praised this aspect of Allingham’s writing in her review of Death of a Ghost, saying, “I think Miss Allingham gains by this versatility. Her thrillers are the more convincing for the habit of accuracy imposed on her by detective writing, and her more intellectual problems enlivened by the sense of colour and movement that invades them from the thriller side of her mental make-up. This would not happen to anybody but a very good writer, and her writing is, in fact, excellent.” The reviewer was none other than Dorothy L. Sayers who, if she noticed any similarities between the early appearances of Campion and her own beloved Lord Peter, chose to ignore them-at least in her Sunday Times column.

Yet that versatility, which was to make Campion an evergreen hero for another thirty years, was not accepted by all the critics. The renowned Julian Symons noted that Campion played a smaller part in the later books (from 1950 onwards) and that “good as they are they would have been better still without the presence of the detective who belonged to an earlier time and a different tradition.” A harsh judgement which would be disputed by Campion fans, but one which could fairly be levelled at the Campion books had they depended solely on Campion’s constant presence for the solving of their puzzles. (It is, after all, Hercule Poriot’s little grey cells which are important in his cases, not what is happening in the world outside the closed circle of suspects.

The Campion books had much more than a hero. They had a hero who aged, who matured, who moved-sometimes reluctantly-with the times. The detective who, in the 1930’s, would quite happily introduce himself as “Tootles Ash” and cheerfully claim kinship with Bertie Wooster, was, by 1945, a quieter, more studied world-weary operator. In his first appearance after World War II, in Coroner’s Pidgin (Pearls Before Swine in the US), “there were new lines in his over-thin face and with their appearance some of his old misleading vacancy of expression had vanished.” Even later, in Cargo of Eagles in 1966, which was unfinished at the time of Allingham’s death at the age of 62, Campion is described as “tall and fair, but he was over-thin and the careful veil of affable vacuity which had begun, like his large spectacles, as a protection, and had become a second skin, had robbed him of good looks.”

Campion was certainly not a superhero, nor an unemotional thinking machine. He was often bested in fights, which Allingham could describe with real menace. In Look To The Lady in 1931, Campion is attacked by the villainous “Mrs. Dick” and thrown into a stable with a mad horse in a scene which still zings seventy years later. By the time of The Mind Readers in 1965, Campion is genuinely frightened and struggles to keep his wits about him-he is getting too old for this-when confronted in unarmed combat by a vastly superior opponent.

As Campion matured, so did his entourage, each one cementing links to the reading public-Amanda Fitton (who later became his wife), their son Rupert, a host of assorted relatives, his police contacts Stanislaus Oates and Charles Luke, and of course L.C. Corkran (or “Elsie” in typical Campionesque style) who belonged to a mysterious intelligence outfit known only as The Department. All of them grew and aged alongside the hero and alongside the public-with the possible exception of Lugg the manservant, who remained incorrigibly Lugg to the end. This was indeed an unparalleled cast of characters and one which served Allingham well during a sterling career.

Throughout the variety of plots, which covered the worlds of art, fashion, the theatre, espionage, smuggling, and buried treasure (often with a touch of the Gothic thrown in, Allingham having been much influenced in her youth by Robert Louis Stevenson), there was, always a sense of place. Perhaps her most famous setting was the mixture of Suffolk countryside and Essex coastal salt marsh which first appeared in Mystery Mile and which became known among her circle of friends as “Margeland.” The villages of Pontisbright in Sweet Danger, Saltey and Mob’s Bowl in Cargo Of Eagles, and “Boffin Island” in The Mind Readers were inspired by the northeast Essex countryside where Margery Allingham spent most of her life. Many of the locations survive in recognisable form to this day, notably Kersey in Suffolk and Osea and Mersea Islands off the Essex coast. She was equally good at describing Cambridge, fog-bound London, and closed family communities such as the one in More Work for the Undertaker (1948), a book which, according to Robert Barnard (an expert on, and advocate of, Agatha Christie), exhibited ” . . .a marvelous sense of place . . .,” and he goes on to say that “her portrayal of a family of decaying intellectuals is both alarming and touching.”

It is, to be honest, the people and places in the Campion books which inspire devotion rather than Campion’s stature as a great detective in the vein of Poirot or Holmes. Perhaps great character would be a better description, or even favourite detective, for it is surely impossible not to like Albert Campion. He is certainly a believable character, as shown by one of Allingham’s most treasured fan letters sent from a prisoner-of-war camp in 1943 and addressed simply to “Mr. Albert Campion, 17A Bottle Street, London.”

Many assumed that Campion was based on his creator’s husband, “Pip” Youngman Carter-an artist, editor, illustrator, and wine writer, among other things-who completed Cargo Of Eagles and went on to write Mr. Campion’s Falcon and Mr. Campion’s Farthing after Allingham’s death. Yet Allingham scotched this particular rumour by clearly depicting Pip and herself as Tonker and Minnie Cassands, owners of the pub The Beckoning Lady, in her 1955 novel of the same name. Allingham herself spread the story that Campion was based on the Duke of York (who was to become King George VI) but almost certainly she did this with a smile on her face.

The truth is probably that Campion started as an archetype of the young, smart, “gay set” which enjoyed country house weekends, large fast open-top cars, and “getting into scrapes.” He developed into a rounded and sympathetic character despite, rather than because of, the advantages of his birth. That he was allowed to do so-and that his fans accepted it so well-was a mark of Allingham’s skill as a writer and, more importantly, a writer who refused to take the concept of a great detective too seriously. For me, this is why Campion really is one of the great characters of the so-called Golden Age of 1930’s English crime writing and Margery Allingham is the best female writer to emerge from-or survive-that era.

The Campion books are read and re-read by people who wish to follow the fortunes of the hero and his extended family as he and they develop over the years, and by people who want to get the feel of a place (sometimes a place where evil lurks not far below the surface), and by people who simply want to be entertained by a writer who enjoyed writing. I cannot think of a single Campion tale where it really matters “whodunit.” What I remember are the scenes along the way: the ritual of the dagger at Black Dudley, the final terrifying climax of Look To The Lady with its touch of Gothic horror, the practical Undertakers of 12 Apron Street headed by Jas Bowels, the street musicians playing their way through a London pea-soup fog in Tiger In The Smoke . . .

Every Campion story, as Agatha Christie once said, was “distinctive” and did not rely simply on a plot twist for its impact. Can you imagine saying the same thing about many of the other works that were to emerge from that same era? Of course I am biased. Not only do I live in Campion/Allingham country, in the northeast of Essex, but I have met Albert Campion! It was, I should admit, Albert Campion as played by Peter Davison (shadowed by the marvellous Brian Glover as Lugg), on location for the BBC production of Look To The Lady, one of eight Campion novels adapted for television over ten years ago.

My claim to fame was that at the time I worked in the brewing business and the producers wanted an expert to tell them how the bar of the pub The Three Drummers would have looked circa 1931. Having already acted as an advisor on a TV film in the Sherlock Holmes series, recreating a rural pub in Sussex in 1902, my name somehow got into the Campion frame. I was more than happy to oblige. Filming took place in the village of Kersey in Suffolk, though the climax was shot at the famous Layer Marney Tower some miles away in Essex. I think Margery Allingham would have approved of the BBC production and of Davison, yet only those three films were made and to the best of my knowledge they have not been seen in the UK for over a decade, even though Davison was (and is) a bankable TV and theatre star.

Against the consistent flow of consistently good TV adaptations of Poirot and Miss Marple, plus two memorable interpretations of Lord Peter Wimsey by Ian Carmichael and Edward Petherbridge, not to mention the dominance of Sherlock Holmes and then, since 1987, of Inspector Morse, it is perhaps not surprising that Campion is not as widely known a fictional detective as he should be. This is sad and curious, but perhaps not surprising given the vagaries of television production. Not that Campion fared much better on the larger screen. When a film version of Hide My Eyes was being discussed in 1958, it was mooted that the star would be a young “pop” singer called Cliff Richards-nowadays the ageless, born-again Sir Cliff.

Thankfully, that film never got made, although The Tiger In The Smoke was filmed in 1956, starring a handsome young ingenue, Tony Wright, as the psychopathic Jack Havoc. To build the film into a star vehicle for Wright, the scriptwriters and producers took the expedient route of removing the character of Albert Campion entirely! Whatever Margery Allingham thought about this is not recorded, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Albert Campion himself would have chuckled with glee, and then somehow negotiated a remake which would have won an Oscar. For the one thing you learn about Albert Campion is never to be fooled by first appearances.

In her last novel Margery Allingham wrote, perhaps unconsciously, the perfect obituary of her hero: “In his own apologetic way Mr. Campion was a celebrated figure. In his time he had performed a number of services for a great many causes. He was a negotiator and an unraveller of knots and there were still people who suspected, because of his wartime activities, that he had a cloak and a dagger somewhere concealed. Those who disliked him complained that he seemed negligible until it was just too late.”





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