Questions by Harriet Devine
I really enjoyed reading Mr Campion’s Farewell, and, as a lifetime fan of Allingham, I wasn’t sure if I would. But I’m full of curiosity as to how you achieved the writing of it. So my first question is, what was the manuscript like when it came into your hands? How much of it existed in actual written form? And was there any kind of plot outline?
Pip Youngman Carter left four completed chapters and the beginnings of a fifth which he had corrected and revised by hand as he went along. There was no title for the manuscript, no plot synopsis or plan. His ‘set-up’ chapters gave a few vague clues as to where the mystery might go and introduced an active cast of at least a dozen characters plus references to five or six historic characters who might be significant or simply red herrings. Most important, for me, was that he established a setting – the medieval Suffolk wool town of ‘Lindsay Carfax’, which I took to be based on the real town of Lavenham, a place I know well. There were obvious hints that the historic East Anglian wool trade was important to the story and fortunately I knew a bit about that too.
In a way, because there was no outline, I had a free hand and of course I had Albert Campion, who could handle any mystery I was able to come up with.
How well did you know Allingham’s work before you started? and how much reading and research did you need to do in order to catch her tone, style and of course characterisation? Or would it be more accurate to say you based these on the novels her husband Philip Youngman Carter completed or wrote after her death?
I read my first Margery Allingham novel (Look to the Lady) as a teenager, more than forty years ago, and have been a fan ever since. I even had a (very) small role in designing the sets for the BBC’s television series of Campion starring Peter Davidson and Brian Glover and for the last twenty years I have lived in Allingham country, no more than ten miles from Pip and Margery’s Essex home. I recently edited new editions of Youngman Carter’s two ‘Mr Campion’ books for Ostara Publishing and so knew them well. I determined to follow the structure of Pip’s books but to add back the warmth and humour of the early Allinghams – which most people said were missing for Pip’s books. Being known as a writer of comedy crime was both an advantage and a hindrance as I did not want to be accused of trying to pastiche Margery’s style of “coherent daftness” (as one fan put it), rather I wanted to honour it. Margery Allingham was the writer who persuaded me that crime-writing could be fun and inspired me to try my hand at it.
I suppose that leads to the big question – how much of Allingham’s existing work was contributed by her husband?
That is a big question, certainly among fans. Margery’s biographer, Julia Jones, told me that Pip “was not as much of a collaborator as Margery would have loved him to be”, which is rather poignant. Certainly, Pip was not the ideal husband Margery might have wished for, but despite his indiscretions they did remain married for almost forty years and, having seen some of his private correspondence, I think he was genuinely heart-broken when Margery died in 1966. To my mind, there’s no doubt that he was involved in the early Campion stories in the 1920s-30s and then again at the end when he completed Cargo of Eagles after Margery’s death. He was a talented journalist on national newspapers and magazines, an artist and wine connoisseur, and these elements come through in the early Campion books. He was also, though it is often overlooked, a successful short-story writer and contributed regularly to the magazine Argosy. In fact, one of his slightly fantastical stories, Humble’s Box, was clearly meant to play a part in his third Campion book.
It was also Pip who gave a starring role and a girlfriend to Campion’s son Rupert in Mr Campion’s Farthing and I have used Rupert and Perdita (now his wife) in my novel to suggest a ‘passing of the torch’ to the next generation.
The novel is set in 1969, the year Philip Youngman Carter died leaving the novel unfinished, and three years after Allingham’s death. Was this an absolute given for you, or did you contemplate a different time setting?
As this was a ‘completion’ it never occurred to me to alter the time frame. Pip was writing a contemporary mystery (albeit a rather old-fashioned one for 1969) featuring an ageing, mature hero. As one of the brilliant things about Albert Campion is that he was allowed to age and mature as time went by (unlike, say, Hercule Poirot who is absolutely timeless), I felt I had to stay true to that and to consider how Campion would come to terms with being “too old for this adventuring lark” – hence the title Mr Campion’s Farewell, as Albert is seriously considering retirement.
Whilst promoting the new book, I have been genuinely surprised at the number of fans who have asked if I would write a Campion novel set back in the ‘Golden Age’ when Campion was a young man. I would find that rather daunting as it would invite direct comparison with Margery when she was at, many would argue, the height of her powers.
I see you are commissioned for a further title, Mr Campion’s Fox. Is this also based on an existing MS? Can you tell us anything about it?
Mr Campion’s Fox is all mine, which means I’ve got no-one else to blame! It is set in 1969 again and begins in Soho but most of the action takes place in a Suffolk coastal town famous for its brewery and for a sandy spit of longshore drift which has cut it off from the sea. There are hints of smuggling, a touch of espionage, some rather incompetent spies, a murder and a missing girl, the daughter of the Danish Ambassador. Albert Campion, of course, directs operations but needs considerable help from son Rupert, daughter-in-law Perdita and his very efficient wife, Lady Amanda, to get to the bottom of the mystery. And, due to popular demand from Allingham fans, there’s a very important cameo for that loveable rogue Magersfontein Lugg.
Harriet has reviewed Mike Ripley’s Mr Campion’s Farewell in our Fiction section.