Another batch of my writings from the AlbertCampion list this time on the subject of Dancers in Mourning (1937).

I should start by saying that I think this is a very great book – certainly in my Top 100 British Mysteries.

Part of greatness lies in its power to shock. And I find it helpful with this book to outline the plot as I see it (or that part of the plot which seems to me the book’s core)…….

Albert falls in love with a married woman. He suspects the woman’s husband of murder, but because he loves the woman he absents himself from the case and, if not actively obstructing, at least does nothing to assist the investigation. What is more Campion is aware of this and analyses his situation with brutal honesty…

“Regarded dispassionately it resolved itself to a simple enough question. If you are violently and unreasonably attracted to a married woman, to discover immediately afterwards that to the best of your belief her husband has killed, either by accident or design, a previous wife…….do you involve yourself further in the situation, denouncing him for his crime and walking off with the lady? ‘No, you don’t’ said Campion aloud, ..”

To put it another way the code of the detective and the code of ‘honour’ as Campion perceives it are in direct conflict.

To show how radical all this is, if it is not self-apparent, we should compare with Allingham’s peers. The question does not arise for Christie since Poirot and Marple are not of this type. But in their own ways both Sayers and Marsh approach the issue – Wimsey falls in love with Harriet while she stands in the dock accused of murder (Strong Poison), and Alleyn is in love with Troy when he is investigating a murder at her house (Artists in Crime). But there the resemblance ends. Neither Harriet not Troy is married, but much more importantly both Wimsey and Alleyn are convinced of their innocence, and it is never suggested that either man would be diverted from the course of their ‘duty’ whatever the cost might be. The internal dialogue (quite apart from its psychological honesty) quoted above is unimaginable in either Wimsey or Alleyn (or in Sayers or Marsh). ( I am not here disparaging other writers – I am a fan of all the Big 4 – I just see that their strengths were very different and it helps me to think about each by comparing them).

We can go further than this with Campion in Dancers however. Even in a mystery novel of today it would be slightly shocking if a detective proceeded as Albert does.In a way the whole ethos/morality of the British mystery novel is based on the notion that the pursuit of the truth is the highest good and nothing should stand in its way. Perhaps this is no longer true but it certainly was in the 1930’s. So Dancers represents a very radical step. And I have to admit that my own instinctive reaction is that Campion is wrong. But I react like that because I am conditioned by the genre.

The fact that Campion is also wrong in fact – it is not Jimmy – makes no difference to the argument above. Indeed it greatly deepens the complexities Allingham
introduces.Not only is Albert’s moral judgement questioned, his intellectual processes are shown to be faulty. In fact in Dancers Albert becomes a real grown-up human being. Perhaps the first to step onto the stage of the British mystery. I can think of no other challengers to this title.

If Judge represented Allingham’s growing-up, then Dancers represents Campion’s growing-up. The debt which later mystery writers owe her is enormous. A quote which sums this up appears at the end of Chapter 17…

“Hitherto he had been an observer only in the many dramas which he had investigated and that circumstance had given him an unfounded sense of superiority. To-night he felt cold and disillusioned; no longer shocked but frankly despairing to find himself both so human and so miserably unhappy.”

I cannot help but read this as the gentlest of allusions not only to Albert’s earlier outings but to Poirot, Wimsey and Alleyn (to name but 3) – is there not in all
of them, however minutely, that ‘sense of superiority’? Whatever, in Dancers Albert Campion becomes a grown-up human with all the suffering that such a transition entails. The leap from Emily’s ‘silly ass persona’ to Albert in Dancers is quite without parallel in British mystery fiction as far as I know.

Roger very correctly and expertly pointed out that “All I’d add is that, though Raymond Chandler tried very hard to convince us all that Dashiell Hammett’s detective stories are completely different from those of his British contemporaries, Samuel Spade faces the same sort of dilemma in ‘The Maltese Falcon’, and his suspicions prove to be correct. He takes the same line as Wimsey and Alleyn – honour before love, I suppose you could call it.”

Roger’s invaluable notes need no commentary but there are two other things in Dancers which I want to comment on.

First the bomb at the station. Roger quotes from the passage about the way that the news the bomb attack spread. I am wondering about the precedents for this? I am unable off the top of my head to think of any similar crimes in the literature of the period, though I suppose they might have been more likely to occur in thrillers than the classical Golden Age mystery.There is something very shocking about this crime, and of course it has a very contemporary resonance in the way very few Golden Age murders do. But apart from literary precedents what about real life incidents? How many bomb attacks were there in the inter-war years?

Because the peculiar and unsettling thing is the way that Allingham treats it. Chapter 18 ,which describes it, is marked by a sudden change in style and narrative approach – the relation of the spread of what is at first rumour is given full weight (and we should note that it is at the end of Chapter 17 that the passage I quoted above where Campion finds himself both ‘human and so miserably unhappy’ immediately precedes this – it is as though Allingham is going on to demonstrate the unhappiness of humanity generally, but also as if this outrage is some sort of answer or instruction to Campion to cease being so self-obsessed – truly Dancers is a complex novel).

The horror of the bomb is given full weight in the descriptions which follow and again Allingham uses a new, for her (as far as I can recall?) stylistic device of telling the story through a newspaper report. This, in the context of the book, seems to me to give added weight to the atrocity. And Allingham continues to reinforce the horror – the porter’s wife who commits suicide in the next chapter. It is really an astonishing piece of writing and I am, as I say, interested in its sources or precursors both literary and actual?

The final passage I wish to quote is in some ways unconnected with Dancers as a specific book but very much relates to all I have been trying to claim about Allingham’s concerns at this time. It comes in Chapter 5 and shows Campion musing…

“As he walked alone between the yew hedges it occurred to him that in an age when all the deepest emotions can be successfully laughed out of existence by any decently educated person, the sanctity and importance of sudden death was a salutary thing, a little last rock, as it were, in the shifty sands of one’s own standards and desires.”

The many ramifications of this remark, not only for Allingham but for all inter-war mysteries (the Golden Age) would be worthy of a book to themselves! On the other hand it does not do to overstate the case, because there were many people for whom this was quite untrue. But clearly the notion of laughing deepest emotions out of existence instantly makes, me at least, think of the Waugh of Vile Bodies, Decline and Fall etc.. Of course in terms of Dancers the impact is rather different because Albert is very quickly going to learn that other deep emotions cannot be laughed out of existence.

But it is above all as a reflection on her own trade as a mystery writer that the passage seems to me of interest. It is almost as if she is saying that her books
need not be trivial entertainments, but can contain serious observation and comment. And surely in Dancers she most magnificently proves the truth of this.