Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Battered Penguins IX

Black Plumes by Margery Allingham - so battered that the front cover is missing

Margery Allingham is the creator of Albert Campion, the only fictional detective of whom I'm really fond. It was because of him that I chose Black Plumes to read. However, when I reached page 139 of the book and he still hadn't appeared, it crossed my mind that he might not be going to. It also dawned on me that his absence didn't bother me. It turns out it's not Campion I love; it's Allingham herself.

For Allingham is a chatty, companionable author. All the way through her novels, she is there at your side, sharing wry jokes and wise insights about life in general - "jealousy, that most degrading of emotions", "the erstwhile rose garden looked small and dirty, as such air shafts do in the city," -  and the particular tale she has to tell. She is witty - for instance, she describes a restaurant as "pleasant without being in any way good", (I've been to plenty of those), and has one of her characters explain to another, who feels self-conscious at a night club, "Don't worry, there's not a soul in this room who can spare a second to recognise anyone but themselves".

She is also very good at conjuring vivid visual tableaux - in Black Plumes perhaps the greatest example of these is the funeral from which the title is derived - whose central element is nostalgia. A fondness for the disciplines of the recent past, 'the awe-inspiring commonsense behind the absurdities of that great social code of the day before yesterday', is an essential part of Allingham's work.

Most importantly, of course, for a writer of detective fiction, Allingham tells a good story, and Black Plumes contains one of her better plots. Of course, if you don't share Allingham's passion for an earlier, more elegant era or for larger than life characters who, at least in my imagination, talk like Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter, ("It occurred to Francis that she was going to cry; the discovery appalled her and she rose to her feet, choking"), you will probably find her books unendurable. I, however, love being plunged into Allingham's comfortable imaginary world, which is why I found Black Plumes - and all the other books I've read by her - amusing, intelligent and highly diverting.  If you want to spend a rainy afternoon reading in front of the fire, Black Plumes could be the book for you.

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