Allingham: The Fashion in Shrouds

I wrote just last week about Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger, the book J. K. Rowling said in the Galbraith/McDermid Interview at the 2014 Harrogate International Festival was her “favorite Christie.” She also recommended two books by Margery Allingham, The Tiger in the Smoke and The Fashion In Shrouds:

Val:  How did that love affair with crime start for you?

JK:  Probably…I know I was reading Christies when I was quite young. All of the Big Four – Marsh, Allingham, Christie and Sayers – I’ve read and loved. My very favorite of those four is Allingham and she’s the least known. It’s The Tiger in the Smoke, which I think is a phenomenal novel. I read that when I had a newborn baby and I was so tired, I’ll never forget how that book held my attention. Every night I would go to bed absolutely exhausted, but I had to read, and it’s the only book I’ve ever read literally page by page because I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Because it gripped me so much. So anyone wanting an amazing atmospheric…this taut narrative….a genuinely terrifying villain …The Tiger in the Smoke.

Val: I agree with you about Allingham. I think she’s underrated.

JK: She is underrated. She’s a bit patchy – a few other books aren’t quite up to that – but some of what she did was up there with what any others did.

V: I love Fashion in Shrouds as well.

JK: Yeah, love that one.

I read Tiger in the Smoke and it was as big a payoff on a Rowling recommendation since Austen’s Emma and Godge’s Little White Horse (scroll down to #10 on this list of ‘White Horse’ pointers from J. K. Rowling for more on that). I wrote about it here: The Origin and Meaning of ‘Voldemort:’ Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke? If you were caught off guard by the reference to Johnny Cash (his picture is on a mug in the deserted Knight house on the Chiswell property, all you need to know is that Johnny Cash was the villain of Tiger in the Smoke. It really is a Rowling favorite which shows up in her work, Potter and Strike. Two thumbs up.

So I decided to pick up Allingham’s The Fashion in Shrouds, which Rowling said she “loved” in agreement with McDermid’s shout-out for the title. The book cover includes a blurb from The New Yorker that says “One of the finest murder books ever written.” Sounds like a real winner, right?

Three quick notes and a recommendation after the jump!

(1) Lethal White Echo: One astute critic of Cuckoo’s Calling who wrote before Robert Galbraith was outed as J. K. Rowling marveled in her review that a man could write so convincingly about women’s clothing and accessories. You needn’t marvel about Allingham and The Fashion in Shrouds which novel takes place in the world of women’s fashion design (the hero, Albert Campion, has a sister Val who co-stars in Shrouds who is a brilliant designer and business woman). Margery Allingham knew her dresses, capes, hats, gloves, runways, and accessories. The closet thing to this in Cormoran Strike is his visit to Guy Some’s offices and a fashion shoot in Cuckoo; perhaps the take down of the London publication culture in The Silkworm is a closer equivalent. The only real echo of the Strike mysteries to be found in Shrouds, though, after my hurried reading is that the core murder is a suicide that was really not at all as it seemed and the man responsible for the suicide-that-really-wasn’t tries to kill again by staging a suicide in the final act. Serious Strikers will get the reference; Strike1 and Strike4 are false suicides and we’re betting that Strike7 will reveal that Leda Strike’s death wasn’t by her own hand, either.

(2) A Novel for Afficianados: Rowling and McDermid love this book. After finishing it, I really had to wonder why. Both mystery writers spend a good deal of time in the Harrogate conversation despising Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and his romance with Harriet Vane — and Fashion is in with the same crowd as the Sayers set. The dialogue is fast, clever, and comic in the vein of British Golden Age mysteries, and, if you can forgive the prejudices of the times, i.e., references to Africans as ignorant “Gold Coast niggers” who will believe a plane painted gold is more valuable than one in silver, idle discussion of “rape as a cure” for uptight women, and to despising Greeks — “Something’s happened to that race since they did all that marble work” — it’s a lark. I think, though, that McDermid loves Shrouds and Rowling was happy to agree was because it features the heroes staging a play-within-the-play to draw out the bad guy and the “big clue” that guides Campion to the solution comes from an obscure literary reference, a bon mot from a Laurence Stern letter. Most of all, I think McDermid and Rowling enjoyed the Knight’s Move Allingham makes in using the Drawing Room scene in which the detective reveals all he knows to a gathering of the suspects not to reveal the criminal. Anyone familiar with the Hercule Poirot formula will be delighted.

(3) Life is Short: Unless you’re a real Allingham addict, then, I think this Rowling recommendation is one you can safely skip. I suspect McDermid mentioned it not because it has any great merits but because Rowling had just raved on Tiger in the Smoke and, forgive me, Val wanted to share that she, too, as an Allingham fan has a favorite (and there is a delightful character named Val in the book?). Rowling’s agreement may only have been to acknowledge that she was aware of the title as well. I confess that the only incentive I feel to read another Campion mystery is to find out if Albert winds up marrying the brilliant Lady Amanda Fitton; their exchanges and relationship, cold and hot, are the best part of Shrouds

Which perhaps makes it more meaningful to the conception of the Strike-Ellacott partnership than I have allowed. If you’ve read The Fashion in Shrouds or if you’re a Margery Allingham reader, let me know what you think!

Comments

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Having embarked on reading her, I’m inclined to try any and every one that comes my way (even though I have not snatched up every one I’ve encountered, so far, and do not have a maniacal urge to Be Sure to Read Every One – at least, not yet…)

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