For the reading groups so far I’ve been picking out novels which share a subject, such as last month’s World War I fiction; this month I thought it would be interesting to read a particular genre. Detective fiction was the obvious choice – it was such a popular genre in the period (indeed you could argue that it has never ceased to be popular), and the 1930s is often described as the ‘Golden Age’ of detective stories.
We’ve got lots of detective stories in the collection, so I picked out a novel or two by each of the authors we have, ranging from the very well-known to the entirely forgotten. I immediately seized on The Fashion in Shrouds by Margery Allingham. Such a great title! Murder in the world of haute couture! Fantastic.
This is the first Allingham novel I have read and it did not disappoint. Indeed it was a far better novel than I expected. Yes, there is a formula, which Allingham embraced, calling the mystery novel a box with four sides: “a Killing, a Mystery, and Enquiring and a Conclusion with an Element of Satisfaction in it.” But it is also a thoughtful, clever novel which I would very happily re-read even though I know whodunit. The Observer said: ‘To Albert Campion has fallen the honour of being the first detective to figure in a story which is also a distinguished novel.”
Allingham certainly had a long literary training. Born in Ealing in 1904, her father and mother were both writers, and at the age of seven Margery was given her own study and a writing task by her father. A new housemaid snatched a notebook from young Margery, exclaiming:
“Master, Missus and three strangers all sitting in different rooms writing down LIES, and now you’re starting!”
One of the attractions of detective fiction to Allingham was that “Nobody cared what the Mystery Writer thought, as long as he did his work and sold his story. It suited me.” However, she considered bad writing and slovenly construction a “discourtesy to the reader”.
I cannot find any such discourtesy to the reader in The Fashion in Shrouds. Here is the plot summary:
‘No scandal attaches to the actress Georgia Wells. You couldn’t call her a man-eater – not exactly – but other women are wary when she looks at their men. Especially the fashion designer Valentine Ferris, who happens to be Albert Campion’s sister. Val and Alan Dell are very much in love, but things change when Georgia comes on the scene. And then Georgia’s second husband is poisoned, and there is strange news of his predecessor.’ http://www.margeryallingham.org.uk/plotsummaries.htm
The cast of characters are exceedingly glamorous and upper class, as is usual, but what is striking about The Fashion in Shrouds is the importance of professional women. More interesting than Georgia, the histrionic actress, are Val Ferris and Lady Amanda Fitton. Val is ‘one of the most important business women in Europe, with a reputation to keep up and a staff to look after’. Allingham, as well as stating this, makes the character of Val entirely believable. I especially liked Val’s reaction to Georgia telephoning to check that they are still friends:
“Oh, don’t be a fool, woman. I’m at work. Of course we are.” (143)
Then there is the splendid Amanda Fitton, who is an aeroplane engineer. The aristocractic Amanda is just as capable of working out what is going on as Mr Campion. It is she in fact, who first smells a rat:
“Albert,’ she said suddenly, ‘I’ll tell you something. I can hear machinery.” (140)
The Fashion in Shrouds is frequently a meditation on femininity: what is it? How does a professional woman’s femininity express itself? What does the expression of female sexual agency mean for relationships with men? The importance of professional women in this novel might make the world depicted appear modern and progressive, but there are stark reminders that the social mores of 1938 are very different to those of today.
Val and Mr Campion argue about feminine behaviour:
“Oh,” said Mr Campion furiously, “this is damned silly introspective rot. What you need, my girl, is a good cry or a nice rape – either, I should think.”
Val’s laughter was spiteful.
“There’s a section of your generation who talks about rape as a cure for all ills, like old Aunt Beth used to talk about flannel next to the skin,” she said witheringly. “This mania for sex-to-do-you-good is idiotic. (132-3)
The ending is even more surprising. Dell asks Val to marry him, in these terms:
“Will you marry me and give up to me your independence, the enthusiasm which you give your career, your time and your thought?” […]
“Yes,” said Val so quickly that she startled herself. The word sounded odd in her ears, it carried such ingenuous relief. Authority. The simple nature of her desire from him took her breath away with its very obviousness and in the back of her mind she caught a glimpse of its root. She was a clever woman who would not or could not relinquish her femininity, and femininity unpossessed is femininity unprotected from itself, a weakness and not a charm.’ (262-3)
It is this ending, rather than the revelation of the identity of the murderer, that shocked me. The Fashion in Shrouds is regarded by modern readers as a ‘controversial novel’ See this blog for example. I wonder if it was in 1938? Certainly the fact that the contemporary Observer review described it as a ‘distinguished novel’ acknowledges its unusual depth.
Susan Rowland’s book From Agatha Christie to Ruth Rendell argues that these writers:
‘maintain their reputations because their novels are not only widely read but treasured and repeatedly reread. This suggests that the reader is engaged not so much by the ‘closure’ of these novels, the ‘whodunit’, but the ‘process’, the means by which the criminal is finally identified out of the many narrative possibilities. It is, in fact, the literary qualities of these crime fictions, which sustain their popular and cultural significance’
This certainly reflects my experience of reading The Fashion in Shrouds. Is it true for you? Do you re-read detective stories?
On a final, more frivolous note, there is also one of the best explanations of ‘fashion’ I have ever read, right on the first page:
Why it is that a garment which is honestly attractive in, say, 1910 should be honestly ridiculous a few years later and honestly charming again a few years later still is one those things which are not satisfactorily to be explained and are therefore jolly and exciting and an addition to the perennial interest of life. (5)
True then, and true today.
Moira Davison Reynolds, Women Authors of Detective Series (London: McFarland & Co, Inc, 2001)
Susan Rowland, From Agatha Christie to Ruth Rendell (Houndmills: Palgrave, 2001)