I’m in a confusing place with Margery Allingham. I definitely read three of her books when I started getting into Golden Age detective fiction, one of which, I’m almost certain, was The Beckoning Lady (1955) and very hard work indeed. A few years passed, and I next thoroughly enjoyed the amoral ingenuity of Police at the Funeral (1931) before stumbling badly over Flowers for the Judge (1936) and sort of abandoning her, faintly dissatisfied. So when The Case of the Late Pig (1937) passed into my hands, the mere 132 pages of this Penguin edition commended themselves as an opportunity to reacquaint myself with the author and see how things go.
Learning of the death of his onetime school tormentor Rowland ‘Pig’ Peters at the moment that he happens to be reading an anonymous letter concerned with the same subject, gentleman sleuth Albert Campion attends the funeral and then forgets the matter, despite the odd people he encounters there. Five months later, following a suspicious death at refined country club Halt Knights, Campion is called in by the Chief Constable of the county and, upon viewing the body, sees that the victim is ‘Pig’ Peters, now late for a second time in one calendar year. So…what gives?
There is a liveliness to The Case of the Late Pig which I would struggle to associate with the previous Allingham’s I’ve read, and it hits you right from the off, not least in the relationship Campion has with his factotum, enabler, and all-round foil Magersfontein Lugg:
“While you remained strictly amateur you was fairly private, but now you keep runnin’ round with the busies, sticking your nose into every bit of blood there is about, and you’re gettin’ talked of. We’ll ’ave women sittin’ on the stairs waitin’ for you to sign their names on piller-cases so they can embroider it if you go on the way you are going. Why can’t you take a quiet couple o’ rooms in a good neighbour’ood and play poker while you wait for your titled relative to die? That’s what a gentleman would do.”
“If you were female and could cook I’d marry you,” I said vulgarly. ‘You nag like a stage wife.”
Reformed criminal Lugg is such a delightful creation, and so completely out of keeping with the demure, refined types like Peter Wimsey’s Bunter and Hercule Poirot’s Georges, that it’s difficult not to feel conventions being torn out by the roots during every magnificent line he’s on the page. Allingham, however, enables this realisation to seep in around Campion’s narrative, since to our central duo their mutual antagonism is part of the quotidian fabric of life.
“Extraordinary feller, your man,” said Leo as we drove off. “Keep an eye on him, my dear boy. Save your life in the war?”
“Dear me, no!” I said in some astonishment. “Why?”
He blew his nose. “I don’t know. Thought just crossed my mind.”
Indeed, amidst a plot which positively barrels forwards with almost no space to pause and breathe, Allingham does wonderful work with the flashes different characters get: Inspector Pussey looking “proudly puzzled…like a spaniel which has unexpectedly retrieved a dodo”, a landlady typified as “a poor old woman who had been too busy all her life to have had time to develop an intelligence”, Chief Constable Leo Pursuivant being scandalised at the prospect of playing bridge before lunchtime…as we rattle through the various disclosures on the way to our murderer, there’s plenty to enjoy. Even the architecture isn’t spared Campion’s pleasant disdain, with the main building of Halt Knights described as being “built by an architect who had seen the [British Museum] and never forgotten it”.
The murder — for murder it is, with Oswald Harris (as he is known at the club) was dozing in a deckchair when an ornamental flower urn dropped on his head from a height of two storeys — is pleasingly constructed within the genre’s more elaborate conventions, twisting in elements of the HIBK school (“How important that was I did not dream.”) as well as the old standfast of everyone being occupied at the time the murder occurred, meaning that no single person could have committed the act unless everybody is in on it. I suppose we veer into impossible crime territory here, but the opportunity for some Outsider to have crept in and murdered Harris for reasons of their own (everyone at the club had reason enough, believe me) is never quite disposed of.
A few typically unusual assertions must be borne — that someone coughs in the exact same way as their nephew is, apparently, a feature of genetics — but the speed at which this develops, and the energy put into those developments, is mostly very pleasing. It only really comes unstuck in the final stages, when the explanation for how the murder was achieved proves to be no real explanation at all and the various relationships that fall out fail to leave much of an impact because of how little we really know about the characters. I mean, Gilbert Whippet might be magnificently realised at first encounter…
It is about as easy to describe Whippet as it is to describe water or a sound in the night. Vagueness is not so much his characteristic as his entity. I don’t know what he looks like, except that presumably he has a face, since it would be an omission that I should have been certain to observe.
…but that sense of vagueness, while impressively maintained throughout, is unhelpful given the dual roles he comes to play. If Allingham slowed down on the corners, this would be less of a bracing wind-in-your-hair experience, but the endings would land more, there would be space and time to offer full explanations where they’re really required (rot13 for mild spoilers: V fgvyy qba’g shyyl haqrefgnaq jul gur obql jnf qhzcrq va gur evire…), and the one supposition of Campion’s which is held back almost to the point of unfairness would have a better chance of hitting the reader in a manner to better delight and intrigue. What it definitely doesn’t need, however, is more clarification around Campion, as the apprehension of the criminal contains a wonderfully brief moment that is all the more telling for how quickly Allingham skates over it; sometimes less is more, but not always.
My feelings toward this book can be best summed up, however, by saying that before I’d even reached the halfway point I had gone online to buy more Allingham — The Fashion in Shrouds (1938), since you asked — and heartily look forward to making the acquaintance of Campion and Lugg again. Perhaps I failed to spot the joie de vivre in her other books because of how comprehensively she seems to tailor her narrative tone to the style of story she’s telling, or maybe I was just a humorless ingrate when I read her before — either way, this was a wonderful reintroduction, and more Allingham will definitely follow.
Fiction Fan: I’m still not sure why Allingham gets ranked as one of the Queens of Crime – for my money she’s not a patch on ECR Lorac, for example, who is a “forgotten” author. But I suspect that’s more down to my subjective taste regarding style than an objective judgement about quality – I really don’t like the snobbery that comes with aristocratic detectives – and there’s no doubt Allingham has her fair share of dedicated fans. I don’t think I’ll ever class myself as one of them, but I find her quite entertaining for an occasional read. And, overall, for me this was one of the more enjoyable of the Campion novels.
21 thoughts on “#1064: The Case of the Late Pig (1937) by Margery Allingham”
Allingham tearing around corners is a lovely image for capturing her incredible narrative drive, rich observations, and Tey-like disregard for setting up her endings properly. Though I’ve enjoyed all of the long works of hers I’ve listened to, I’ve–oddly enough–had even better success with her short stories, where strong central ideas seem to keep her more on track. (Still, I’ll add a concurring vote for Lorac’s supplanting her as a Queen of Crime.)
The potential elevation of Lorac came, of course, from your Fiction Fan quote.
I also have a collection — maybe two — of her short fiction, so that could be the place to go next. I’ve found new joy in Dorothy L. Sayers by reading her shorter fiction, so maybe that will work with Allingham, too.
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And that sends me back to the Sayers short stories myself—after nearly half a century!
Glad you enjoyed this shorter novel (as I recall, one of a brief experiment with a series of shorter, lower-priced books that also included Carr’s The Third Bullet). I’m a big Allingham fan, which veer between traditional whodunits and adventure stories, and I would certainly recommend DEATH OF A GHOST and DANCERS IN MOURNING for the former and TIGER IN THE SMOKE especially in the latter category. The recent continuation books by Mike Ripley are superb by the way.
Did any other authors get in on the short novel craze? Ellery Queen’s The Lamp of God is the only other one I can thinking of, but if GAD classicists were writing novellas then I’m intrigued to see what came of it.
Thanks for the recs, too. All grist for the mill!
This was part of the “New-at-Ninepence” paperback range from Hodder and Stoughton. Not sure it lasted beyond 1937. Other titles in the range included: “She Could Take Care” by Seldon Truss; “The Case for Tresside” by Charles Barry; “Chalk-Face” by James Morgan Walsh; “Danger Below” by George Goodchild; “Lawless Voyage” by Arthur Durham Devine; “Disgrace to the College” by George Cole; “A.B.C. Solves Five” by Carl Eric Bechhofer;
I have heard of….none of those authors 😄
I have a copy of Seldon Truss’ DRAW THE BLINDS (1936) – got it second hand in Italy back in the 80s because the edition, a reprint from 1969, included an interview with John Dickson Carr (in both Italian and English). This was part of a range of reprints that appeared in the “Il Giallo Mondadori” line where each volume would also include short stories and items about the genre or interviews as well as the whole book. Hard to explain the nature of this really but basically these came out weekly and each one would as easily reprint a classic GAD novel from the 30s as a harboiled thriller by James Hadley Chase and could be quite responsive to user feedback (there were letters pages too).
I’m in a similar place with Allingham. I first read The Crime at Black Dudley a couple of years ago and was completely underwhelmed, which was disappointing given her reputation. I had heard good things about Police at the Funeral so some time later I read that, and while I liked it better I still wasn’t enamored enough that I was sure I would ever read another. The Case of the Late Pig was recently recommended to me so I intend to give Allingham another shot.
This one was a real shot in the arm for my interest in Allingham, so with any luck you’ll enjoy it more that what you’ve read before,
Fashion in Shrouds is VERY different*. Good point about tailoring her narrative style.
*and deeply flawed
Good to know, thanks.
I was inspired into that choice by Nick Fuller’s rankings, since he seems to like the ones I’ve enjoyed and disliked the one I remember disliking (plus, he steered me expertly in the matter of R. Austin Freeman, so we have previous form).
Expect a write-up in the fullness of time.
My own experience of Allingham’s books sounds similar, though I have probably read a few more. Most were meh or not great. But this was one of the ones I enjoyed the most.
I find her variation in tone interesting; perhaps that’s why she’s both popular with purists and yet still flies below the radar: you never quite know what you’re going to get. The consistency of the likes of Christie, Lorac, etc. make them a far safer bet.
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I find her work utterly charming – there is a wonderful sense of grand adventure underlying many of her stories, something she shares with Carr in particular. But this contrasts really well with the depiction of Campion, who is very mysterious to start with but becomes more realistic. He is allowed to progress as a person, so he meets someone and eventually gets married to her and they have children and he really does get older as the books go on. And then there is the sheer variety of stories in which he appears: thrillers, whodunits, spy stories and several adventure / treasure hunts. And even a hint of Sci-Fi at the end. TIGER IN THE SMOKE is one of my favourite mysteries – really magical.
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The tiger in the smoke is other major one I enjoyed I think.
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It’s a true classic.
Your experience with Allingham echoes mine. I tried about three of Allingham’s books before giving up: Death of a Ghost was underwhelming, More Work for the Undertaker bored me to tears and left Flowers for the Judge unfinished. So never even bothered touching Police at the Funeral and The Tiger in the Smoke. I returned to Allingham a few years later with The Case of the Late Pig and some short stories, which I liked so much more than the novels. Shorter novels and short stories suited Allingham better as I don’t think her plots are suited to carry a novel-length mystery.
A second vote for her short stories. Perhaps I’ll try those next before taking on The Fashion in Shrouds.