Before I picked up this iteration of The Allingham Minibus – a work that’s been around in varying versions since the 1970s – I’d never read any of Margery Allingham’s work. I knew little of her, save that she was considered one of the Queens of Crime, alongside Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Ngaio Marsh. I expected, given her contemporaries, that I’d have a quaint read ahead, of clockwork mysteries and tea and crumpets before bedtime.
Thankfully, that presumption was false. The 18 tales gathered together in this collection (the name of which admittedly made me think of a Tarago packed with story denizens) are of a distinctly stranger bent.
There is a distinct link to crime in the works in here, it’s true. Allingham’s stories generally involve some kind of wrongdoing, and her best-known creation, the detective Albert Campion, makes an appearance in a handful of tales. The most strident connection to the golden age of crime writing comes from the memorial introduction to the book, penned by Agatha Christie, even if Christie seems to be a little bit disingenuous in a “well, we remember her well but too bad she’s dead” vein.
The stories generally begin with a bit of a bang. You’ll often discover who will murder (or has murdered) who within the first couple of lines – time being of the essence in a six-page tale. But how it transpires is what drags you in. Of course, being writing of its time, there’s a certain element of AHA! which rewards the astute reader, but I’m happy to say that the reveals never really tended to be as pat as I’d expected.
Instead, there’s elements of transgression in the stories here. Sure, there’s blackmail, but there’s also eloping ghosts. There’s kidnapping, but there’s also grave-robbing revenge. There’s meditations on divorce and futility, and some raciness just offstage. There’s one story which is an extended jab at institutionalised racism. There’s even a story which moves into much weirder tale territory – let’s just say you’ll eye your headphones askance afterwards. Hell, if anything, the stories that drag are the ones that focus rather too much on detection: it’s Allingham’s knack for extensive portraiture with a minimum of text that drew me in.
Other reviews of this work have occasionally moaned about the lack of Campion stories, which, I assume, means a dissatisfaction with the level of ratiocinative narrative. I tend the other way: I wish there were fewer straight-up detective tales and more oddity. When Allingham’s on it, she’s on it in the best Robert Aickman fashion: sensible, but not quite right.
The Allingham Minibus is an impressive collection. It’s done precisely what a good sampler should: drawn me in and made me want more. The only question is what next?
(My Goodreads profile is here.)