Written by Margery Allingham — Writing a short story is like packing for a low cost holiday. When you’ve got a limit on how much you can put in, you have to make choices. You have to make sacrifices. This collection of 18 stories by Golden Age queen Margery Allingham is full of stories that are either atmospheric, peopled by richly drawn characters or tightly plotted, but no entry here manages to achieve all three.
Stories such as The Lieabout make up for their hastily-painted caricatures of characters by constructing tight and economically produced mysteries, while others such as Tall Story are master classes in the construction of character and setting, with plot inserted almost as an afterthought. In general, those featuring Albert Campion are more focused on plot, relying as they do on a character established through Allingham’s other work.
Campion is a gentleman detective, a soft-spoken, inoffensive looking man with a keen nose for the truth. He was supposedly created as a parody of Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, which shows through in moments of self-effacing understatement and keen wit. Yet throughout the stories in this collection, as well as other works featuring Campion, the detective grows into a well-rounded character, much more than just a parody. That’s not to discount the pieces that don’t feature Allingham’s most famous creation. One of the stories without him, Is There A Doctor in the House, is the most humorously satisfying of the collection, while another, They Never Get Caught, is a dark tale of revenge and duplicity, perfectly constructed and leading perfectly to its inevitable conclusion.
Margery Allingham is rightly considered one of the queens of the golden age mystery, and her works feature a characteristic light-heartedness, at odds with their criminal plots. The crimes are for the most part murder, but there’s also the odd theft, disappearance or deception, and one case of destruction of currency. Allingham’s work is exceptional among works from the Golden Age in that many of these stories closely examine the psychology and the motives of the criminals. Not all of them, however, which is the chief strength of The Allingham Casebook. It contains plenty of variety, with different plots, lengths and styles, so they never feel dull.
The opening story, Tall Story, is a highlight. It’s short, atmospheric and features a healthy dose of Allingham’s wit. The fact the plot itself only takes up one or two sentences is forgivable. The final two stories, Mum Knows Best and The Snapdragon and the CID are perhaps the most light-heartedly silly, and are the perfect tales to close things off.
The plots and counterplots, schemes and undoings featured here demonstrate exactly why Allingham is considered a queen of the Golden Age. No single story is perfect by itself, but together as a collection The Allingham Casebook is better than the sum of its parts. Fans of this type of crime fiction cannot possibly go wrong, whether they are fans of Allingham or new to her work.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars