Wednesday 8 March 2023

Margery Allingham's The Fashion in Shrouds

The Fashion in Shroud
s, 1938. Spoilers throughout.

This book is immediately preceded by Dancers in Mourning. In that story, Mr Campion fell for Mrs Sutane, and has kept a sentimental souvenir – a button off her dress. In "Shrouds", he throws it out of the window, and it lands at the feet of Amanda, the young engineer he met in Sweet Danger.

I first picked this book up about 50 years ago, and was put off, as other readers have been, by its old-fashioned attitudes. Mr Campion's sister, Val, also rejected by the Family, is a dress designer. As the story starts, Campion has a date to meet actress Georgia Wells at Val's fashion emporium.

Val (Valentine), ushers him in and he immediately thinks she is "dressed up to look like a female". He compares their reflections in a mirror and adds: "You have sufficient feminine weaknesses to make you thoroughly inferior on the whole." Val has fallen in love with engineer Alan Dell, Amanda's employer, who is also invited to the dress show and lunch. The characters discuss endlessly what it means to be a woman now that the little dears can run fashion houses, act on the stage, or design aeroplanes. Can a woman have a career and still be feminine? ("Feminity" not defined.) It doesn't really amount to much, or even make sense. Women had always worked – and the writer toiled all her life to support a big house, her husband and a horde of parastic hangers-on.

The story continues with bags of atmosphere, intriguing plot and some truly awful attitudes. Georgia, though married, pinches Alan from Val, who is of course very upset. Her brother remarks that "what you need is a good cry or a good rape". At the time even sophisticated people didn't have the vocabulary to discuss sex. They used "rape" to mean sex, but "seduction" meant rape. (As a character says in a later book: "You've completely muddled your values!")

Rex, Val's employee, is bitchily described by a colleague as "not quite a lady" as he fusses over the pirating of the collection.

The cast gather at a luxury country hotel to watch Georgia's husband take off in an aeroplane for the British colony he is going out to govern. The hotel complex has everything: even an airport. Aeroplane supplied, of course, by Alan Dell's firm. And... it's gold-plated and Amanda explains it's to impress the African chiefs.

That's all bad enough, but then Georgia's stand-in is discovered dead in Epping Forest, and some evidence is given by a rather dim waiter whose accent is a mixture of Italian and Cockney. Inspector Oates has some unacceptable things to say about him.

When Dell eventually proposes to Val, he makes a speech about how she'll have to give up her job and he'll make all the decisions. (Francis Matthews narrates the full version of the book and can't help laughing at this bit.)  

All this is balanced by Allingham's usual page-turning ability, observation of types, and witty prose. Mr Campion speaks in the language of Victorian adverts or whatever comes to hand. "Ladies and gentlemen, the balloon she is about to mount", he observes as most of the characters convene in a nightclub, dining with partners to whom they are not married, keeping a beady eye on each other and pulling stunts like being seen with their wife's double in an identical dress. Campion is riffing on wartime slang. "The balloon went up" means that hostilities broke out, but here the day is saved by the elderly Lady Papendiek, Val's business partner, and Ferdy Paul, the producer of Georgia's starring vehicles.

Lady P watches Amanda dance. "Her figure is perfectly natural – how does she keep her stockings up?" Mr Campion answers: "A couple of magnets and a dry battery, if I know Amanda." I like to think she wore roll garters. (This is for Clothes in Books.) 

Allingham herself considered the original version "wordy". It contains a lot of guff about the hotel-plus-country club and the dress emporium - there's an office suspended in mid-air like a bird cage, and gold wallpaper. When the book was reissued after the war she cut 25,000 words. 

To my mind, the best version of this book is the abridged version read brilliantly by Peter Davison. Most of the horribleness has been cut, and he gives everyone such character. Especially Anna, Ferdy Paul's "mistress of the house". (She's not a "devoted secretary" as someone put it. In the end she takes all her jewellery and probably everything not nailed down, pretends she's going to the pictures, and disappears. But not before Allingham explains that NOT marrying your girlfriend is the only way of acquiring a traditional wife these days. Does she even use the word "handmaid"?)

However, Allingham has a thesis in this book: the murderer proceeds by exploiting the "strength and weaknesses of man". And we really need all those words, including the lost 25,000, to understand what she's getting at. And we need Lugg's quotations from the greats. Rex's neurosis is explained by shell-shock and he has a moving speech about how certain colours bring back terrible memories.

Campion and Amanda kind of get together, but they don't tie the knot until the next book, Traitor's Purse, 1940. Though in that story Campion, who has lost his memory, asks her how long they've been engaged, and she says "Eight years"! Amanda is now designing war planes, while we hope Val comes out of retirement to create boiler suits and utility dresses, while Georgia tours the Far East rallying the troops.

My recommendation: get hold of an early edition of The Fashion in Shrouds and grit your teeth during the nasty moments. Highlight them in yellow, or something. Past psychological theories are so easily seen through. We know far more about the human psyche now, don't we? ;-)

More Golden Age mysteries here, and links to the rest.

I'm now rereading the uncut version of Fashion in Shrouds and blimey bits of it are truly awful. Interesting what she said in 1965. It reads to me as if she was "processing" her thoughts. How many of those characters are based on real people? Her husband had affairs, and she fell in love (probably with someone who was married). There's a lot of utter tosh about the difference between men and women and I bear in mind that she kept the show on the road by writing romantic novels and thrillers under other names. Did she decide to write a mystery that was more about relationships, as later critics advise Golden Age writers, retrospectively? ("You shouldn't have been writing puzzles, you should have been writing about psychology and emotions!")

Or did she have an overall structure, quite coldly arrived at? Something about acting versus reality?

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