I have long been a fan of Margery Allingham’s work. She is an intelligent writer, a consummate professional, a great teller of tales, witty, and not afraid to experiment within her chosen genre. Indeed, she was highly innovative, taking the ‘whodunit’ and the pulp thriller, shaking them up, and producing what she rightly insisted on calling a crime novel; that is a book that is first and foremost a novel whose subject happens to be crime.
There were many critics in her lifetime (not least some crime writers) who simply could not get their heads round the idea that a crime story could also be literary (in the sense of well written and dealing with more universal themes). Thankfully there were others who did understand what she was doing, as well as her many fans who much appreciated her books on the many levels that could be found within them.
Richard Martin’s book is a slightly uneasy mix of biography and literary exploration. He first of all assumes that his reader will know Allingham’s books well. And he does tend to jump backwards and forwards so that the biography is interrupted by discussion of groups of books. This means you have to think back to the context in which they were written, then hop forward again to catch up with more biographical detail.
Aside from that, it is refreshing to see a serious approach taken to books that many assume can be dismissed in the same breath as Christie and Sayers. Martin charts the progress of Allingham as a writer and her struggles to improve her work and develop the ‘genre’. For anyone interested in the process of writing, it is well worth reading (as are Allingham’s novels).