John Dawlish and – Margery Allingham?

Hogwarts Professor Louise Freeman said in the ‘Reading Writing, Rowling’ premiere podcast in Roanoke, a discussion of the ‘Top Twenty Harry Potter Moments’ that “‘Dawlish is still in St. Mungo’s and Gran’s on the run’ is one of my top ten lines from the series.” It certainly reflects the nadir in the never especially bright life of Auror John Dawlish. Being toyed with by an escaping Dumbledore and then, one hopes under the Imperius Curse, being made the heavy for the Dark Side Ministry of Magic in Deathly Hallows, Dawlish never seems to catch a break. Professor Freeman told me that she thinks of him as “the Harry Potter equivalent to the red-shirted Star Trek security guard.

I bring this up today because I think I have found the origin for Auror John Dawlish’s last name.

If you’re a Cryptonym Specialist, Harry Potter division, you may be scratching your head about this “discovery.” We already have two decent explanations for Dawlish’s last name and the author herself has explained Dawlish being named ‘John’ (the Leaky Cauldron’s John Noe is the most celebrated Dawlish fan and The Presence anointed her character ‘John’ in Noe’s honor). The two explanations for ‘Dawlish’ are that it is a city in Devon near Exeter where Rowling went to college (see The Harry Potter Lexicon on Dawlish for more on that) and, more importantly, it’s referenced in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby.

I wasn’t looking for an alternative to this rather mechanical explanation when I stumbled over it. Now that I have seen it, though, I much prefer it to the Sea Coast town with thin literary echoes having no connection to an Auror, even a can’t-win nebbish like Dawlish, the Wizarding World’s equivalent of an FBI Special Agent.

Here’s how I stumbled over the name Dawlish in an important novel by one of Rowling’s favorite mystery writers —

I found this note in an interview done with Ian Rankin, mystery writer and friend of Rowling’s, while looking for something else about Cormoran Strike:

In Britain, Ian Rankin typically publishes a new novel in October, and it tends to go to the top of the best-seller list. He said that, this year, his publisher moved the date to November, fearing that the late-September launch of “The Casual Vacancy” will, for weeks, render all other fiction invisible to readers and to the media. Rankin was taken aback but glad for the extra writing time. He wondered if “The Casual Vacancy” might have a whodunnit air; Rowling has talked to him of her admiration for British crime writing of the nineteen-twenties and thirties. “She loves Margery Allingham and Dorothy L. Sayers,” he said, adding that the Pagford setting had relieved him of his greatest fear: that Rowling had been working on a crime novel set in Edinburgh. He said, “I hope she’ll create an English village that she will know intimately—and it will be real to us.”

Sayers I know, if more as a Dante scholar than mystery writer. But Allingham? I’d never heard of Allingham and wrote to Dolores Gordon-Smith, UK Potter Pundit and mystery writer. She recommended some titles which I found at a local second hand bookstore and I had a few of Sayers’ Sir Peter Wimsey novels on the shelf. I resolved to read the lot to get a feel for Rowling’s background as a writer of detective fiction.

I’ve read the four Wimsey novels I have — look for a post about the strong echoes of Busman’s Honeymoon in The Silkworm — and this past week I’ve been reading Albert Campion thrillers, Campion being Margery Allingham’s hero, looking for Strike clues between long stretches of a Critical Literature Review due in Swansea next week.

The Allingham novel in which I found Dawlish is supposedly one of Allingham’s most important or at least the one that made her reputation as one of the Four Queens of the Detective Fiction Golden Age (with Christie, Sayers, and Marsh). It’s called The Crime at Black Dudley (1929) — and it is as bizarre a set piece ‘Country Manor’ murder mystery as you could imagine, with a foreign criminal — heavily accented German — holding a party of the upper-set hostage at a castle miles from civilization. The hero amateur detective is a pathologist named Dr. George Abbershaw who Allingham was introducing as her Sherlock Holmes of sorts, the vehicle protagonist of a series of books.

Fortunately, he is completely over-staged by the side-character ‘Albert Campion,’ not his real name, a devil-may-care aristocratic adventurer for hire. He was such a hit that Allingham was persuaded to drop Dr Abbershaw and focus on Campion. He becomes her equivalent to Christie’s Hercule Poirot, Sayers’ Wimsey, and Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn. The Crime at Black Dudley is a must read for Allingham addicts because it is our first meeting with her principal player.

And ‘Dawlish’? Not his real name, either, it turns out but it is how he is referred to through the greater part of the book. He’s not a side character. He’s the Goldfinger, Red Skull, Dark Lord of the piece, “the most dangerous and notorious criminal of modern times.”

Dawlish came first, and in the sunlight his face appeared more unprepossessing than it had seemed on the evening before. For the first time it became apparent what an enormous man he was.

He was fat to the point of grossness, but tall with it, and powerfully built. The shock of long grey hair, brushed straight back from the forehead, hung almost to his shoulders, and the eyes, which seemed to be the only living thing in his face, were bright now and peculiarly arresting. Chapter 8, ‘Open Warfare’

So he is not a great physical likeness to Dawlish outside the grey hair. To an Allingham reader the name ‘Dawlish,’ though, mad agent of Simister, the international crime syndicate whose actual leader we meet in Campion’s first starring role, Mystery Mile, would be what ‘Moriarty’ is to a Conan Doyle fan, i.e., not an especially subtle pointer to a favorite writer and critical criminal character.

I’ll write soon about a fun Deathly Hallows echo in Mystery Mile and the Busman’s Honeymoon Strike notes I mentioned above. Today let’s keep it to ‘Dawlish’ and another possible literary reference and hat-tip embedded in Rowling’s Hogwarts Saga.

As always, I covet your critiques, questions, and corrections in the comment boxes below!




  1. Suzanne Lucero says

    Brilliant! I wish I were as good at “following breadcrumbs” and working out mysteries as you are. (You can stop blushing now. We all know you’re a master at it.) Well done.

  2. Dolores Gordon-Smith says

    That’s a great piece of literary detective work! Have you read Strong Poison? One of Sayers best

  3. Beatrice Groves says

    Thanks for this John, very convincing!
    Rowling mentions her love of Margery Allingham in the 2014 interview which she did as her alter ego Robert Galbraith: In this interview she says that she read Allingham’s ‘phenomenal’ novel The Tiger in the Smoke ‘one fraught Christmas when I had a new-born baby.’ It seems highly likely that she is referring to Christmas 1993, after the birth of her first child, when she was just beginning to write Harry Potter and may well have been looking for names. It is just possible that she may have got another of her names from this Allingham novel, for in Chapter 10 a character is referred to as ‘hag-ridden’. The Oxford English Dictionary notes ‘hag-rid’ as a form of ‘hag-ridden:’ ‘ridden by a hag; esp. afflicted by nightmares’ and Rowling has explained that ‘Hagrid is another old English word, meaning – if you were hagrid – it’s a dialect word – you’d had a bad night. Hagrid is a big drinker – he has a lot of bad nights:’ Hag-rid is not a common word so it did leap out at me when I read Tiger in the Smoke (which, incidentally, I can thoroughly recommend!).
    This is not, however, my favourite possibility for the source of Hagrid’s name – though I think it may be your favourite, John – as, given that we can pin-point her reading of this novel to the moment she was starting Potter, it gives more evidence for Allingham as a source for Rowling! If anyone, though, would like to find out more about my evidence for Thomas Hardy as the source for Hagrid’s name they might like to see my Literary Allusion in Harry Potter (due out this week….).
    Thanks again John!

  4. Brian Poulton says

    Is it my imagination or is the lady on the cover holding a wand?

  5. I’m guessing, Prof Groves, you prefer The Mayor of Casterbridge and the page — the single paragraph — on which we find the words ‘hagrid’ and ‘dumbledore’?

    ‘Tiger in the Smoke’ was already in the queue but thank you for these Allingham citations! I’m new to the Campion Cult but it’s never too late…

    I know I’m not the only serious Potter-phile looking forward to the publication of Literary Allusion in Harry Potter. The pre-order page is up at Amazon, folks!

  6. Brian Basore says

    I wanted a continuation of Mugglenet Academia #5, ‘Whodunit? Harry Potter in the Great Hall with a Wand,’ and here it was! Thank you.

  7. Brian Poulton:

    That is the Black Dudley dagger, not a wand, but I take your point!

    Brian Basore:

    ‘Whodunit?’ was a great podcast, if I say so myself — it featured Dolores Gordon-Smith, mystery writer extraordinaire (speaking at the British Library this week on Ronald Knox), who actually left a note at the top of this thread!

  8. Mr. Granger,

    If it turns that Rowling got the name Dawlish from a super-villain in an Allingham mystery novel, then aside from being a clever acknowledgement (as well as potential sign that Ms. Rowling’s might have been turning toward the Noir genre as far back as 2007) I can’t help in thinking it’s also a perfect metaphor for the nature of fame in showbiz. One minute you’re at the top of the heap. The next minute you’re reduced to walk-on status. Such is the name of the game, I guess.

    Good to here there are more Strike oriented posts coming soon. One thing I’d urge is to not quit, or be afraid to buck the trend if they prove less popular than the other Rowling material on this site. It just strikes me (no pun intended there, believe it or not) as the sort of thing “Mr. Galbraith” would approve of.

  9. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    Lord Peter Wimsey! (Have you yet enjoyed the conversation where such distinctions arise in Whose Body? One can even enjoy it (twice-over) as a volunteer-read audiobook at, due to some peculiarities with the U.S. copyright!)

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