The Spring 2010 issue of The Bottle Street Gazette (the journal of the Margery Allingham Society) features, among many other good things, the text of an address to the Society by the mystery writer Janet Laurence. Laurence talks in some detail of the very great Traitor’s Purse (1941) and summarises with admirable precision the masterstroke of series development which Allingham engineered in this book.

I had already written at some length about Traitor’s Purse, including the particular aspect which Laurence highlights, when it was discussed on the Albert Campion Yahoo list (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/albertcampion/)  in August 2005, and thought I would take this opportunity to reproduce not only the relevant part of Laurence’s address but also my and others contribution to the list discussion.

Here then is Laurence….

She [Allingham] gives Campion amnesia – a stroke of genius. First it allows her to skip the sometimes tedious business of getting an investigation under way. At the start of the book the reader gets landed right into the most crucial part of the plot and suffers with Campion as he struggles against the clock to discover what is tantalisingly just beyond his memory. Even better, Allingham makes Campion realise that, because it seems everyone is depending on his ability to come up with the  answer to the desperate situation, he cannot actually admit to his condition. Everyone, therefore, treats him as they would normally do: he begins to see himself as a stranger would and realises he doesn’t much like the person that emerges. And no sooner has he realised, to his great satisfaction, that Amanda and he are engaged than she tells him she wants to cancel the wedding. By this time he has come to understanding that she is he most important thing in his life – and that, owing to the situation he finds himself in, he has to accept her decision. He has lost her.

Campion decides he has to change his behaviour. In my experience, it is rare for an author to look at a series character, decide they need new life, and the manage a believable way of enabling them to develop so radically.

 All I would add is that I think it is not so much rare as almost unparalleled, certainly in Golden Age mystery fiction. Only someone who reads the entire Campion series chronologically can appreciate the extent of the changes which Allingham mad.

I will now reproduce my comments from the 2005 List Discussion….

I have far too much to say, but will start here
with a brief note about the plot.

With extraordinary good timing there was
a TV documentary a couple of weeks ago
in the UK which focussed on a Nazi plot
to undermine the British economy by the
introduction of vast amounts of forged bank
notes. The real story is far grimmer than anything
in Allingham, in that the notes were produced
by Jewish Concentration Camp prisoners who
were selected for their skills and who’s lives were
then preserved for this purpose. The forgeries
were of an incredibly high-standard. This was
quite late on in the war and the plot was never
fully realised.
I have no idea whether at the time Allingham wrote the book
there was a panic in the UK about this possibility
but the fact that the Nazis took the idea very seriously
indeed shows that we should certainly not dismiss
the underlying theme of the plot as fantastic.

**************************************

Before getting too academic and detailed
about the book I wanted to say that above
all it is for me a wonderful gripping narrative.
This was, quite literally, a book I couldn’t
put down, even though it was a re-read.
It demonstrates, again perhaps but for me
in the most concentrated way so far,
Allingham’s powers as a story-teller.

There are so many things I want to talk about
but I will start with the book’s central idea because
it leads to so many of these things. That is
of course Albert’s amnesia.

This functions in so many ways..

1.) As a narrative device. The reader is kept
gripped by the question of when (maybe
whether) Albert will recover his memory.

2.) As a series device. Albert’s amnesia
is able to work in the way it does because
he is an established character with whom the
reader has a relationship. If the book was a one-off
the amnesia would still function as a narrative device
but it would lose much of its strength and potency.
When one considers how much Allingham is able
to use the device it is amazing that lots of
writers of series characters have not used it!
Perhaps they feel Allingham is definitive.

As a series device it functions in lots of ways.
First there is the issue of how to get Albert into
the War. I have been trying to look at the question
of how mystery writers of the 30’s adopted/adapted
to the arrival of WW2 – it emerges that there were
a large number of examples, but unfortunately there
seems to be no convenient monograph on the subject.
Of her peers Sayers stopped writing mysteries,
Marsh after one book sent Alleyn to New Zealand,
Christie made her war book a vehicle for Tommy
and Tuppence, the fascinating N or M, mainly I think
because she wanted to say something more personal
than Poirot or Marple would allow. I suppose the issue
might be summed up by saying writers had a choice.
They could write entertainment by ignoring the war
and writing ‘pre-war’ mysteries – as Christie also did –
or they could set their books in the war, but this would
necessarily mean a great deal more reference to current
events than was usual in peacetime; a book set in the
war which did not mention the war would be an absurdity
whereas a book set in the 30’s which ignored the Depression,
the Spanish Civil War etc. was perfectly normal.

Allingham decided that she wanted to put Campion
into the war. To write a war novel in fact. But how
to do this? And we must remember that at the time of
writing (1940-41) the outcome of the war was far from clear.
There were issues of ideology, patriotism, censorship etc.
Campion cannot merely toddle about solving murders.
He must become part of the war effort. But this did
involve a considerable change in direction from at
least the last few novels. Who is this Albert the reader
might ask? Amnesia is a perfect device for circumventing
this. Because Albert himself is asking who is this Albert? !
So together reader and Albert can re-discover Albert.
And it is to some extent to be a new Albert – a tougher,
harder, more involved Albert. As the War demanded.

And it also allows Allingham to resolve the question
of Albert and Amanda. This is such a master-stroke
that it almost takes one’s breath away. Traitor’s Purse
thus represents not only a break from Fashion in
Shrouds
, it also represents an immediate narrative
following on. The two books, so different in nature,
are bound together by the fact that they form two chapters
in the story of Albert and Amanda. The muddle in Albert’s
head in some ways carries over from the muddle he
has been in through the previous few books on the question
of love/sex/marriage.

The amnesia device thus enables Allingham not only to get
Albert into the war in a wholly convincing way – it also
enables her to develop his character and to resolve the
question of his relationship with Amanda. Albert
grows up. As a passage at the end of the novel
states …

“For the first time in his life he felt completely adult.
His hesitancy, his qualms, his intellectual doubts
seemed suddenly the stuff of childhood”
(the question of whether this lack of doubts and
qualms would be suitable for a post-war
detective can be left on one side here –
such a character is a character for war not peace
and certainly not one who would have appealed
to a writer of Allingham’s complexity in normal
circumstances).

I believe however that the state of amnesia
which clouds Albert’s brain also works as
a wider metaphor, whether intentionally
or not.

************************************

I talked last time about Albert’s amnesia and
the purposes to which Allingham put this and in
particular how it enabled her to write a War Novel
which Traitor’s Purse so clearly is.

I want to move now to how I see the amnesia used
both a metaphor for the period around 1939-40 –
the ‘phony war’, the fall of France, Dunkirk, the
arrival of Churchill – and also how it enables Allingham
to present Campion’s view of the war in the most high-flown
way without seeming overly strained. What we are fighting
for and what we are fighting against – Allingham uses
Traitor’s Purse to declare her own position on these
issues.

I also find it fascinating to compare Allingham’s view with
that of the great ‘literary’ fiction portrayals of the period –
ie: Waugh in Put out More Flags and then later Men at
Arms, and the war books of Powell’s Dance to the
Music of Time sequence. There is a sense especially in
Put out More Flags, which Waugh wrote at the time, of
confusion, muddle, even cynicism.

The key passage in Traitors Purse occurs in Chapter 12
and comes as a sort of flash breaking through Albert’s
amnesia. He recalls ” something deeper than affection,
something more primitive and disturbing than love of women”.
It is, as I commented before, a very high-flown passage…
he feels ” a burning, raging, invigorating thing, the stuff
of poetry and high imagining, the fountain-spring of superhuman
endurance and endeavour”.
Allingham then goes on to one of her ‘generational’
passages…she begins…
“He (Campion) belonged to a post-war generation….”
There have been statements like this in the books before –
how I wish we had a good phrase search engine! – where
Allingham writes about Campion’s ‘generation’. It should always
alert us to the fact that in Campion, while she is drawing a
highly individual, even idiosyncratic figure, she also
uses him as a representative figure to talk about the way
she felt her generation saw the world (this is a habit and
concern which marks her out very starkly from her peers –
although it is fascinating that the one time Christie does do this
it is in her war novel N or M – with Christie it comes as
an innovation and shock where it does not with Allingham).
Anyway the passage proceeds to describe the generation…
‘which had picked up the pieces after the holocaust indulged
in by its elders…….(it) had never known illusion” but now
passion was reborn ” a deep and lovely passion for his home,
his soil, his blessed England, his principles, his breed, his
Amanda and Amanda’s future children”.
This is of course propaganda. And I am not being critical
when I say that. For me a writer in England in 1940 had
an absolute duty to write propaganda ( and I have no
sympathy for those writers who realised that and fled
to the comfort of America like Auden). In certain times
and places the choice is either propaganda or entertainment.
Best still if you combine the two. This was a very short-lived thing
and in a couple of years the need was altogether gone – as
Coroners Pidgin shows Allingham very clearly realised herself.
But propaganda can be uncomfortable reading for us now and
even at the time it seems to me that it was necessary to somehow
convey the sheer desperation from which such sentiments can
emerge as justified. And how a character like Campion – whose
main characteristic one might describe as diffidence – can
realistically be made to voice such sentiments. The amnesia
seems to offer a perfect ‘cover’ in both respects. The narrative
situation is desperate (and thrilling) and Campion’s character
is naturally altered.
Propaganda is always dismissed as somehow easy to write
and a very low form of writing. I do not see this. Bad propaganda
is laughable and counter-productive. The need for propaganda
and justification for it is desperation. It seems to me that in
Traitor’s Purse Allingham manages to write extremely good
propaganda.
But as well as knowing what we are fighting for she also
wished to discuss what we are fighting against – a matter
which I will keep for another post.

**********************************************

As well as promulgating, through Albert,
her beliefs in what the war was being fought for,
Allingham wanted to say what it was being
fought against and who the enemy was.

Interestingly she shares with Christie an
overwhelming concern with ‘the enemy
within’, Fifth columnists, spies etc.. Now one
could argue that this was, in a way, necessary
to the narratives of N or M and Traitor’s Purse.
Both plots depend on these things. But
this could have been done by having German
spies as the villains. Instead both writers
place considerable importance on English
traitors. Christie goes further than Allingham.
She suggests that there were a considerable number
of English fascists in senior positions in the
army, navy, police, government ready to
assist with a Nazi invasion. I did some
rudimentary research into this when reading
N or M and discovered there was considerable
panic about this at the time and a widespread demand
for internment of both Germans and English fascists
(like the Mosleys).
There is a certain radicalism here which is most
uncharacteristic of Christie at least and reflects the
peculiar ideological conditions of the time.

Allingham gives this a characteristically quirky twist by
making her ‘establishment’ – the Masters of the Bridge –
both peculiar and colourful. But there is
only one master-mind or master-villain in Allingham.
The others are dupes or fools or petty criminals
(the latter class was one which did rather well in
war conditions – as further explored in Coroners
Pidgin
).

And her master villain is portrayed ultimately as mad
rather than the ‘stuff of dictators’ – not that his madness
would not have destroyed England if not stopped.
The fascinating thing here is that once again we have
both continuity and discontinuity.

The continuity is that he conforms to a type of Allingham
villain. He is egotistic to the point of madness. He has
no conscience. He sees the world entirely through
the lens of his own ego and intellect. How long is the list
of this kind of villain?
Flowers for the Judge, Dancers in Mourning, Fashion in Shrouds,
Black Plumes
at the minimum all have villains of this type.

There is something very peculiar to Allingham here. Perhaps
we should think more about the Allingham villain as a theme some
time in the future?

The discontinuity is provided by the war. In peacetime the villain
is a murderer. In war he can destroy the nation.
And though he may not be a dictator he uses people.
He has the characteristics of a dictator. Ego run mad.
There is something chilling about his speeches at
the denouement. Even if in 1940 English people
had no idea of the full horror of what had happened,
and even more was to happen, in Europe, Allingham
catches some minute glimmer in the man’s inhumanity.

To attempt to sum up. I think Traitor’s Purse is a very brilliant
piece of propaganda. What makes it work so well is the
fact of the continuities and discontinuities with the previous
books in the series, which are focussed by Albert’s amnesia.
This latter device is used by Allingham to provide a thrilling
narrative, but also to make the propaganda effective. As Albert
discovers his true self and his purpose so the reader is led
to accept his conclusions and his vision. It is a book
that is profoundly of its period and its time. And it works
because it demonstrates once again Allingham’s versatility,
her ability to write a completely different kind of book.
Oh and it has a wonderfully happy ending (which is, I am
quite sure, also a parody of the ending of Gaudy Night  – a
subject for discussion in itself!!) – anything less at the time would have
been defeatism.

Among the comments on my post it is well-worth reproducing the following…

I’ve just finished a somewhat scrambled re-read and was also struck by the
way Lee Aubrey is a mini-sketch of the strangely and dangerously charismatic
and monomaniac Fascist leaders who either wrested or tried to wrest power in
the inter-war years.

You’ve already mentioned Oswald Mosley, of whom Allingham may well have been
mainly thinking, especially since he had been a recognised finance expert,
and it was over differences in monetary and financial policy that he first
broke away from existing democratic parties.

The very real threat, too, from within had already just been amply
reinforced by Quisling’s betrayal of his own people in Norway at the time of
writing.

I was thinking, too, that Aubrey’s effortless-seeming inspiration and
manipulation of female adulation was also a characteristic of fascist leaders
like
Hitler – weird though that seems to look at them – but memoirs such as those
of Traudl Junge, a young secretary in a secretarial pool of Hitler’s very
reminiscent of the misguided one in Allingham’s book, testify to the intense
personal magnetism of the man, and women were often amongst the most ardent
supporters. That a woman of Amanda’s often proven intelligence and
level-headedness could succumb to Aubrey’s serves to illustrate the danger of
such men even
more.

Fran
 

to which I replied…..

I hadn’t made this connection but I suspect it may
well be right, even though I don’t know the details
of Mosley’s economic policies.

Of course a further connection might be that Mosley
married a Mitford and was presumably therefore
attractive to women. I think it fair to say though that
Allingham does not present women as being
especially prone to being duped by Aubrey –
everyone is duped. Still we feel it most with
Amanda. But in some ways it makes her
come alive more as a character I think?
– I haven’t discussed this as I have written
far too much already but I think Allingham
develops Amanda considerably in the book.

and….

Julia Thorogood, in her biography of Margery
Allingham, says that Lee Aubrey is to a large extent a
portrait of an classicist named Russell Meiggs, who
had a considerable attraction for Marge. It seems,
though, that she eventually found the attraction a
dangerous thing.

Pip pip.

Roger

(Roger is Roger Johnson who probably knows more about Allingham’s work than anyone).

I replied….

Many thanks Roger that is fascinating. There
is a picture of Meiggs at…

http://www.michael-noakes.co.uk/gallery3.htm

and I found the following from an interview with an
archaeologist…

>>And Russell Meiggs, of course, the “long-haired prof”. His hair fell to
his shoulders, like a woman. He wasn’t interested in eating, he was always
working. But in the evening he’d come to the osteria and talk about the
excavations and Ostia Antica with the old folk ….. Meiggs was very
absent-minded and during a conversation he’d keep forgetting what he was
talking about. He really didn’t behave like a professor, he was a friend and
he was always in a good mood.<<

🙂 – I don’t think it can have been that close
a portrait as Aubrey is anything but absent

Roger replied…

I think that description is of Meiggs in later life.
Julia Thorogood includes a snapshot portrait of him as
an old man, but her text indicates that he was a much
more powerfully attractive person in his younger days.

I must re-read the relevant passage, but off-hand I
seem to remember that Marge’s feelings towards him
became ambivalent. Of course it’s very likely that she
was attracted to him partly in reaction to the
volatility of her marriage. She was not, I think, the
philandering type (can women be philanderers?), but
her husband Pip most definitely was.

The character of Lee Aubrey seems to have been
inspired by Russell Meiggs, but that’s not to say that
he’s a direct portrait, identical to Meiggs in e very
way.

Toodle-oo.

Roger

Judy Geater another list member wrote…

Like Fran, I’d thought possibly Lee Aubrey was based on Mosley
(there was a TV series about his life a couple of years back where
Jonathan Cake played him as a dangerously attractive and seductive
villain), so it is interesting to hear from Roger that there is
thought to be a different real-life original for this character.

I read ‘Traitor’s Purse’ in an Everyman ‘Classic Thrillers’ edition
with an introduction by Jessica Mann, which includes the following
passage about Albert and Amanda – I’d be interested to know where
Allingham’s comments quoted here come from, as Mann doesn’t give a
source as far as I can see:

“Margery Allingham explained ‘The group-hero of the action story is
a classic character. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Robinson Crusoe
and Friday, D’Artagnan and his three friends, and even Holmes and
Watson, combine to make single personalities in their tales of
action. when Amanda reappeared… a sane and practical aspect of the
leading character walked in to strengthen the book.’
By its end, Campion and Amanda were engaged. But marrying off a
series hero is a tricky business. Raymond Chandler, creator of the
ultra-romantic Philip Marlowe, went so far as to say that a good
detective never gets married. Dorothy L Sayers and Ngaio Marsh each
took several books to get their detectives to the altar, stumbling
through long-drawn-out courtships, and Margery Allingham agonised
over the problem. Early in the war she met Dorothy L Sayers in a
blacked-out train during an air raid, and confided that she expected
to have to knock Albert Campion on the head before he could be made
to co-operate. In ‘Traitor’s Purse’ she did just that.”

All the best,
Judy Geater

Judy continued…….

I feel there is quite a contrast between the way Lugg reacts to the
injured Albert and the way Amanda does. Lugg immediately knows that
he is badly hurt and takes over – whereas Amanda seems to accept his
unconvincing assurances that he is all right. This seems a bit odd
because usually Amanda is so attuned to Campion’s thoughts and knows
when there is something wrong – but I suppose perhaps it is because
her thoughts are elsewhere, with Aubrey.

This is probably my favourite by Allingham, and the reason for that
is the romantic plot – not just the romance between Albert and
Amanda, but the whole idea of the hero losing his memory and
struggling to hide that fact while discovering what it is that he’s
forgotten. Then when he recovers his memory, initially forgetting
the days in between – before putting the two halves of the memory
together and answering the riddle.
Can anyone think of other books or films which use this same basic
plot structure? I’ve got a feeling there are some, but can’t think
of any!

Jumping back to the love plot, I was struck by the moment where
Amanda tells Albert she is in love with Aubrey, but gives as the
reason “He’s like you, isn’t he?… Except for the one important
thing… He loves me so.”
This sort of leaves the way clear for her to discover she still
really loves Albert after all at the end although I still find the
abruptness of the change a bit hard to swallow.

All the best,
Judy G

I replied……….

Judy wrote
> Can anyone think of other books or films which use this same basic
> plot structure? I’ve got a feeling there are some, but can’t think
> of any!

I am sure there are lots but the famous film that
springs to my mind is Random Harvest – which was
released in 1942 very close to Traitors Purse –
based on the novel by James Hilton.

> Jumping back to the love plot, I was struck by the moment where
> Amanda tells Albert she is in love with Aubrey, but gives as the
> reason “He’s like you, isn’t he?… Except for the one important
> thing… He loves me so.”
> This sort of leaves the way clear for her to discover she still
> really loves Albert after all at the end although I still find the
> abruptness of the change a bit hard to swallow.

My feeling about this – as with so much in Traitor’s Purse
is that it has to be read very much as following on to
Fashion. In my view we have to read Amanda’s
declaration there about ‘cake-love’ and its stupidity
as to some extent immature. Allingham is not simply
aligning herself with Amanda’s dismissal of the staggering
complexity of the human sexual/romantic condition.
Both Campion and Amanda need some cake-love. Need
to realise indeed that they cake-love each other.
The strategy for getting Campion to realise this is
amnesia. The strategy for Amanda is for her to fall
in love herself. So later in the conversation quoted
above Amanda says…

“I feel disgusted with myself for getting – er – overtaken by
this thing, but its like that. It does – er – overtake”.

Of course she is disgusted. Consider what the Amanda
of Fashion would say about the way that the Amanda
of Traitor’s is behaving! :). If we add in Roger’s revelation that
the character of Aubrey is based on someone who Allingham
herself was in danger of being ‘overtaken’ by we can see
there is a personal application.

It is part of Amanda’s growing up process.

Having said which I can see that the abruptness of the
switch at the end is abrupt. But one might put it that
Amanda, like Albert, comes to her senses. However
those senses are different from the original senses.
Their experiences in the course of the book are
transformational. So they can now have some
‘cake-love’ too.

*********************************

This was a model of a good list discussion which we have occasionally – but alas all too rarely due to my own indolence and absences though illness or other distractions – had on the AlbertCampion list: I would still strongly urge anyone who has a serious interest in her works to join us there.

I think in future I will try to reproduce more of our list discussions here as it is, I hope, far easier to read in this format than in tracing the Yahoo discussions (and I have edited the discussion so that contributions appear in the appropriate place: as well as correcting some of my own grammar and spellings!).

Finally a plug for The Bottle Street Journal and the Margery Allingham Society (see link on left). This issue of the Journal is packed with good things apart from Laurence’s address most notably a wonderful reassessment of The China Governess by Julia Jones.

 

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