Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Heavyweight Campion

A S Byatt wrote in The Daily Telegraph at the weekend about her love for the work of Margery Allingham.  It's an enthusiasm I share.  It took me a while to get round to reading her because I'd assumed - on the basis of no evidence whatsoever - that she was simply a lesser Dorothy L Sayers.  What can I say?  I was young.

In fact, her work is unlike that of Sayers - or indeed of anyone else.  As Byatt points out, her gift lies in creating a world which is almost like ours, but a little skewed.  Byatt suggests, intriguingly, that Iris Murdoch might have been influenced by her.  Maybe so. 

My own view is that Allingham is one of the great overlooked English novelists of the 20th century - arguably another victim of the much-debated literature/genre schism.  I can't see any good reason why she shouldn't at least sit in the pantheon alongside, say, Waugh, Amis, Powell and, yes, Murdoch.  While her earlier Albert Campion books may be relatively disposible (if you discount their enormous entertainment value, that is), her later books - The Tiger in the Smoke, Hide My Eyes, Traitor's Purse, even the last-knocking The China Governess - exert an eerie power that must surely constitute literature.   She wrote about London better than anyone since Dickens, and about wartime and post-war London better than anyone.   If you haven't yet explored her off-centre world, give her a try. 

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