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Crime/Mystery Series: Albert Campion

I know his name is assumed and, of course, from time to time I have been able to pick up odd pieces of information he has let fall in the course of the various of his adventures I have chronicled, but who he is and what his real name is I am not merely not at liberty to divulge: I simply do not know.
--"My Friend, Mr. Campion",
Margery Allingham



Margery Allingham's Mr. Campion

About the Author

Inasmuch as Allingham's non-Campion fiction (indeed, non-criminous fiction), though often quite meritorious, is largely overlooked today, most of the information about her is perforce also about Mr. Campion; and there is a good deal of such information:


About the Character

Background

The character is always known to us, as to most people in the tales, as Albert Campion (though he uses a host of other pseudonyms at various times); but we learn early on that he is in reality a member of a family very high in the aristocracy who has been booted out owing to his Bohemian ways, and so uses a nom de guerre. His true identity is not exactly a secret--he frequently meets people who know his true name and background--but he much prefers not even to allude to it. One elderly lady, well acquainted with his family, says on meeting him in person for the first time,

"You're not much like your dear grandmother, but I can see the first family in you."

I say we don't know his real name, but we do know that his true given name is Rudolph, and that the family name begins with K, for whatever that's worth.

Mr. Campion has an elder brother who is the regulation aristocratic detective's elder brother (compare Peter Wimsey and Roderick Alleyn): stupid, dull, pompous, and who appears to hold the family title, meaning that Campion's father is deceased. (We never see this brother--he is only passingly referred to from time to time.) He also has a younger sister, Val (for Valentine), who is a highly successful fashion designer, and we see much of her in the novel The Fashion in Shrouds. At one point, speaking of himself and Val, Campion explains that:

"We nod to each other in the street and send birthday cards. We're the half of the family that is on speaking terms, as a matter of fact."

"We're the bones under the ancestral stairway. . . . I was asked to leave first--in a nice way, of course. We all have charming manners. Val followed a few years later, and now, whenever our names crop up at home, someone steps into the library and dashes off another note to the family solicitor disinheriting us. Considering their passion for self-expression, they always seem to me a little unreasonable about ours."

It may be added that Campion's grandmother, Emily, has always sided with him against his much more strait-laced immediate family. (Shades of Wimsey's dowager Duchess.)

It is unclear what brought Campion to his unusual vocation--the matter is never explained. Indeed, just what that vocation may be is in itself a matter a little difficult to pin down. In the early books, before Allingham began to take the character seriously, Mr. Campion had a business card reading:


MR ALBERT CAMPION
Coups neatly executed
          Nothing sordid, vulgar or plebian          
Deserving cases preferred
Police no object

                        PUFFINS CLUB
                        THE JUNIOR GREYS


In that early, jejune period, he sometimes refers to himself as Junior Adventurer. He is not a "private enquiry agent", though he often functions in much the same capacity. He at times seems to function for the satisfaction of it all, but at other times to be quite careful to get a good fee. He at times accepts commissions for the government, and there are elusive, vague hints that there may have been more of those, and more confidential, than anything we see. (During WWII he is in military intelligence on critical missions--one again wonders if he encountered Lord Peter). After what we may call his Early Period--in his Middle Period, so to speak--he is often referred to as "everybody's uncle", a nice, quiet man who can give good, well, avuncular advice.

A theme throughout the series is Campion's ability to efface himself, to fade into the wallpaper--so to speak--while looking foolish and harmless; to abet that false character, he wears very large horn-rimmed spectacles that make him look even more foppish and vague (it is unclear whether he really requires spectacles at all, in that he often removes them when preparing for what may be strenuous physical activity and seems quite unhandicapped thereby.)

Mr. Campion has a residence as quirky as himself: a flat at 17A Bottle Street, a seemingly tatty building that happens to house the Bottle Street Police Station on its ground floor. One enters 17A through a small door beside the station, and climbs several flights of stairs, which look seedy for the first two, then acquire elegance. At the top of the stairs is an attractively carved oak door upon which there is a small brass plate, neatly engraved with the simple lettering:

MR ALBERT CAMPION, MERCHANT
GOODS DEPT

As you readily see, in this early stage of constructing Mr. Campion, Allingham was indulging in runaway puckishness, and Campion's speech and mannerisms were of a piece with the rest of all this quainterie. He was, it seemed, master of all arts, witty and debonair to a perfervid pitch. To round out the almost mandatory roster of eccentricities and pecularities, Campion had as manservant a former burglar with the equally over-puckish name of Magersfontein Lugg, who even in these early days was, to put it mildly, elephantine in form, and deeply Cockney in accent and manner, including the requisite superficial disrespect covering deep affection for his employer. Lugg's deep connections in the criminal underworld were, of course, as necessary to such a character as Campion as the equally requisite friendly, highly placed police official, in this case Inspector Stanislaus Oates (one of the Big Five, the elite of Scotland Yard).

Fortunately for detective fiction, Mr. Campion grew up.


Development and Execution

It is manifest that the recipe as originally cooked up by Allingham seemed likely to produce a series of breezy, mildly pleasant, and utterly forgettable once-only reads. Indeed, even now the first three novels are best left till after one has acquired a fondness for the "evolved" Mr. Campion; as introductions, they are satisfactory only in a strictly historical sense.

Allingham always insisted that the idea of Mr. Campion was not one she consciously conceived, but rather something sprung from her unconscious mind that more or less forced itself on her. Campion began as a strictly subsidiary character in a rather conventional (and not terribly good) mystery tale, and ended up eating about a third of the tale; Allingham says that she had no idea who this curious fellow was, not even whether he was at bottom a white hat or a black hat. But he just kept needing to be written in. That was The Black Dudley Murder. Allingham followed it with the first "real" Mr. Campion book, Mystery Mile, in which she introduced virtually all of the tricks and mannerisms already cited. It is, absent any other knowledge of the character, not terribly encouraging; neither is its successor, Look to the Lady, though Campion himself is already becoming visibly a little better grounded, so to speak, and a little less of a walking auctorial conceit.

In The Police at the Funeral, she hits her stride. The setting and characters are light-years more credible and three-dimensional, and with them so is Mr. Campion himself. We get shades of colorings of real, human emotions, all along the spectrum. The plot is still somewhat untidy and unoriginal (Doyle had done it all long before), but all of a sudden we are dealing with people we can believe in acting in ways we can believe in.

It would be nice to say that from there Allingham never looked back, but alas, 'twas not so: the next book, The Fear Sign, was a reversion to type, with the forced whimsicality and character improbabilities of the bad old days. But that was the last major stumble. The next dozen Campion books were all at least very good, with most being excellent. (The novella The Case of the Late Pig is a little below par, and Traitor's Purse is more or less another reversion to type.)

Then followed Allingham's last Campion, the bizarre Mind Readers, in many ways, not really a Campion book at all, being a science-fiction tale in which Campion is only marginally involved. But that was by no means the last of Mr. Campion: we have next the three Campion novels from Allingham's husband, Philip Youngman Carter; the first is "completed by", in that Allingham had finished a good bit of it; the second is "from an idea by", which speaks for itself; and the third is wholy original. All three seem to me, and most readers, to be fully up to the Campion mark. That is not so surprising when one considers that Carter was in many ways an unlisted co-author of much of the Campion work; Allingham certainly did all the writing, and much of the conceiving, but it seems clear that she often talked the ideas through with Carter, and took much good advice from those talks. (One may observe Minnie and Tonker in The Estate of the Beckoning Lady and draw one's own conclusions.)


Some Tastes

I like to offer readers modest samples of an author's style. These I select almost at random, flipping pages till I find what seems a reasonably compact yet self-contained and representative sample of the writer's prose. None of these tidbits are to be thought of any especial high point, but rather as a mere taste of the writer.

"I am eighty-four years old. You will understand, therefore, that in an emergency of this sort I am compelled to use my brain and other people's energies to protect myself and my household. I must also guard myself against such emotions as anger, grief, or excitement which I have not now the strength to support."

She paused and regarded them with a grave placidity, which made her somehow inhuman. Mr. Campion realized that here was a woman of no ordinary strength of character, and her remoteness might have jarred upon him had it not been for the sudden illumination of her next remark.

"You see," she said quietly, "it is very necessary that someone in this household should consider things from an intelligent point of view. My poor children have not been blessed with brains, and that is why I have to conserve what strength I have in this way. You may think my attitude towards Julia's terible death this morning is unnecessarily stoical," she went on. "However, I am past the age when it is proper for one to preserve the decencies by deceiving oneself. Whether it is because Julia has lived with me longer than any of my other children, or whether it is because she resembled my husband's mother, who was an irritatingly foolish woman in a generation when foolishness was fashionable, I do not know, but Julia has always struck me as possessing more than her fair share of stupidity and uncharitableness. So that although I am surprised and shocked by her death, I am not deeply grieved. At my age death loses much of its horrifying quality. Have I made all this quite clear?"

"Yes," said Mr. Campion, who had removed his spectacles, and with them most of his air of fatuity. "I understand. You want me to act as a kind of buffer between you and the shocks which we can only reasonably assume are in store for us all."

Mrs. Faraday shot a swift glance at him. "Emily is right," she said. "You seem to be a very intelligent young man."




In Short

[tba]


Other Views

See the comments and links list at About the Author, above.

It is worth recording that the famous Times book reviewer "Torquemada" would say that to Albert Campion has fallen the honour of being the first detective to feature in a story which is also by any standard a distinguished novel.


The Books

In these lists, the links are all to used-book searches for the title (via Abebooks). Some few can still be found in print new, but not many. As usual, the search results are sorted from lowest price up (note that, as always in used-book searches from this site, the price sort is by actual book price, not total shipped price, though each listing also always shows the true total shipped cost; occasionally, a slightly more expensive title will be slightly cheaper shipped--but the differences are never much and you can easily eyeball those cases.) Most titles represent a number of varying editions, from original hardcovers to late paperback reprints.


The Individual Novels

My opinion, in which I am not alone, is that the Campion novels for which the name of Allingham's husband, Philip Youngman Carter, appears on the cover with or instead of her name are just as authentically Campion as the others, and so, though I label them in the list below, I intermix them freely with the "pure" Allingham (much of which Carter probably participated in anyway). There are 17 novels with only Allingham's name on the cover, one Allingham "completed by" Carter, one by Carter "based on an idea" by Allingham, and one solely by Carter. All told, then, the total stands at 21.


Short Stories

Besides the Campion novels, Allingham produced a generous crop of Campion short fiction: so far as I can tell, 30 collected stories--Ned Blake refers to 60 or so, but I believe that total includes Allingham's many non-Campion stories. In a few of these, especially the later ones, Campion does not really participate, but takes the role of one listening to a tale told by another (typically Inspector Charlie Luke). I have marked with a # hash sign those books necessary for a complete collection; you would think that someone would finally do a complete one-volume Campion short-story omnibus, but we're still waiting.


Omnibus Editions

There are so far a half dozen (that I can find); of those, two, possibly three, are unwanted, owing to abridged contents, but I list them for completeness.

  • Crime and Mr Campion
    • Death of a Ghost
    • Flowers for the Judge
    • Dancers in Mourning

  • Three Cases for Mr Campion
    • The Gyrth Chalice Mystery
    • The Fashion in Shrouds
    • Traitor's Purse

  • The Mysterious Mr Campion
    • The Case of the Late Pig
    • Dancers in Mourning
    • The Tiger in the Smoke
    • short story, "On Christmas Day in the Morning" (unique here)
    • Allingham Campion essay, "Mystery Writer in a Box"

  • Mr. Campion's Lady
    • Sweet Danger
    • The Fashion in Shrouds (abridged version)
    • Traitor's Purse
    • plus a new Campion short story

  • Mr. Campion's Clowns
    • Mystery Mile
    • Coroner's Pidgin
    • More Work for the Undertaker (abridged version)

  • The Margery Allingham Omnibus
    Note: It is said that at least one, possibly more, of these have been abridged in this edition.
    • The Crime at Black Dudley
    • Mystery Mile
    • Look to the Lady





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