Jerry Dowlen takes an in-depth look at Margery Allingham

 

 

 

 

IT’S ALL IN THE MIND by Jerry Dowlen

 

Book Reviews: ‘The Mind Readers’ – Margery Allingham (Chatto & Windus, 1965); ‘England Made Me’ – Graham Greene (Heinemann, 1935).

 

Readers must have thought in 1965 that the author Margery Allingham was out of her mind when her newly-published story ‘the Mind Readers’ mooted that gadgets would one day pick up human thought-waves. Today, almost fifty years later, do we still think that she was bonkers? If you were listening to BBC Radio Four on Wednesday morning 1st February 2012 you might have stolen a glance at your wall-calendar to check that it wasn’t the 1st of April.

For a news item stated that in a controlled experiment, scientists in California had used “functional magnetic resonance imaging” to track “neural activity” and successfully identify words that were going through a patient’s brain. I will leave the medics and the scientists to run with that one: we will no doubt be informed of their further progress. In the meantime, it has always struck me that there are some interesting crossovers between Graham Greene’s ‘England Made Me’ and Margery Allingham’s ‘Mind Readers’. The similarities include surveillance and technology featuring in the stories; but, before I speak about that, let’s consider the characters and the plots in these two engaging novels, published respectively in 1935 and 1965.

Lord Ludor – Krogh – Anthony & Kate Farrant

 

Lord Ludor is not one of the main characters in ‘The Mind Readers’; nor is Krogh quite the lead character in Graham Greene’s novel ‘England Made Me’. But both of these power-crazy tycoons have always grabbed my attention to an extent that I admit is disproportionate to their importance in each story. Ludor and Krogh share several things in common. Each of them has a large and physically intimidating presence. They both have a secretary-mistress. One has a big ugly painting of a gorilla in his personal office and the other has a big ugly modern sculpture at the entrance of his company headquarters. Each man is a ruthless control-freak. Ludor is an English industrialist and Krogh a Swedish financier.

 

How ruthless are they? Well, the suspense builds up engagingly in each story, as the reader waits to find the answer to that question. I should reference here some similarities but also some differences between ‘The Mind Readers’ and ‘England Made Me’ in terms of genre – not that either book is straightforward to classify. Margery Allingham is hailed first and foremost as a writer of classic crime fiction, but ‘The Mind Readers’ seems to flout certain conventions: there isa murder, but the urgency to find out “whodunit” is probably not as paramount to the reader as the need to know whether an apparently fantastic new scientific invention will fall into enemy or criminal hands. Moreover, and some readers might consider this to be extraordinarily strange, Margery Allingham’s master sleuth and adventurous hero Albert Campion doesn’t really come up trumps in unmasking the murderer.

From what I have seen, ‘The Mind Readers’ tends to be dismissed or mildly scorned by Margery Allingham fans and neutral critics. For example, it is mentioned only cursorily in the 300-plus pages of a compendium of articles and essays published by the Margery Allingham Society in 2004: ‘A Great Mystery Writer’ (Lucas Books). It was the last full-length story that Margery Allingham completed. Three years after its publication, she was dead at age sixty-two.

 

Some critics complained that the story is infantile, the writing is sloppy, and it is too far-fetched to imagine that two young schoolboys could elude the whole of the UK police force and Interpol for several days, not to mention a chasing pack of journalists and crooks, while in possession of the coveted “iggy-tubes” that may or may not be the most significant scientific breakthrough of the century. I disagree: I think it’s a great story. (And today, in California, are “iggy-tubes” now a reality?)

 

Back in 1965 in chapter one Margery Allingham throws down the gauntlet to readers, describing five separate actions that all take place on the same day: seemingly unconnected at the time but later to become identifiable as the collective starting-point of a compelling adventure. If the reader can keep these incidents in mind, there will come a point near the end of the story when the five jigsaw-pieces fit neatly together. This assured plot-crafting is the work of a maestro.

 

‘England Made Me’ was one of Graham Greene’s earliest published novels. Like ‘The Mind Readers’ it tends to be overlooked, and is implicitly ranked in a second or even third tier of Mr Greene’s best-acclaimed works. Call me stubborn if you wish, but I have always especially liked ‘England Made Me’. If it isn’t exactly an adventure story, and it certainly isn’t a murder mystery, what is it, then? A character study, perhaps? If so, the lead character Anthony Farrant, well-bred but lacking moral fibre, is surely an early manifestation of the displaced and dubious male characters that populated many of the later Graham Greene novels. Most of the threads of suspense in ‘England Made Me’ concern the interaction between the principal characters as they jostle to achieve financial security or, by their own individual definition, emotional security. Some of the action is violent, but the cut-and-thrust of Krogh’s boardroom wheeling and dealing in large part involves “mind games” that hold the reader in thrall to see who will eventually prevail.  

 

Graham Greene wrote in his autobiography that he considered Krogh to be one of his creative “failures” – a character who had to be in the story but just wouldn’t come alive. Greene felt that the character Minty, a journalist, stole the show after being introduced quite late in the story. And yet my own reaction was the exact opposite, when I first read ‘England Made Me’: I was fascinated by Krogh, but I hardly noticed Minty. Even after a re-read or two, I still don’t “get” Minty. The key, perhaps, to ‘The Mind Readers’ and ‘England Made Me’ is to ‘Look to the Lady’. That is actually the title of another Campion story, but my meaning is to say that while Campion flounders in ‘The Mind Readers’ his wife the Lady Amanda Fitton plays an incisive trump-card at the denouement. Meanwhile in ‘England Made Me’ it is arguably Anthony Farrant’s sister Kate who possesses the most admirable qualities of character (courage, perspicacity, compassion) even if she does waste them on trying to reform her let-down of a brother.

 

Technology and Surveillance in ‘The Mind Readers’ and ‘England Made Me’

 

There is great fun to be had with technology, in these books. I could almost write “lack of technology”, for 1935 and 1965 obviously pre-dated today’s modern era when information flashes instantly around the globe via 24-hour satellite, internet and e-mail. But it is exactly the nostalgic hark-back to the primitive communication methods of 1935 that fuels my great enjoyment of reading ‘England Made Me’. Krogh expressly takes advantage of the time-lags between the separate world financial centres, when he uses telex – remember telex? – to manipulate his balance-sheet. In ‘The Mind Readers’ you’ll spot that in 1965 Margery Allingham used the spelling “computor”- not to mention that there came later in the story a mention of “Tweeters”! 

 

Incredibly, it begins to look in 2012 that Margery Allingham guessed correctly in 1965 that gadgets would one day pick up human thought-waves. That aside, ‘The Mind Readers’ is an extravaganza of surveillance activity and equipment. From his private hideaway, Lord Ludor communicates globally and creatively by telephone, but espionage is rife: telephone wires are tapped; messages are intercepted; rooms are bugged with hidden microphones and cameras. Crucially, though, we and the participants, especially Campion, can never be sure exactly who is watching and listening. Sinister things happen at the Godley’s research station situated on an isolated coastal strip of Essex. Classified information is feared to have been leaked. People’s possessions disappear. Before long, people start disappearing, too. Espionage featured in some of Margery Allingham’s and Graham Greene’s best-known and most popular novels. It touches into ‘The Mind Readers’ to enable Margery Allingham to treat us to some magical dialogue. Twice in the story, Campion has to slip away and find a public call-box, to telephone his latest news to Intelligence. The game is to convey his information inside a conversation that must strike any eavesdropper as being only a mundane family chat. Campion and his female counterparty duly engage in seemingly innocent conversation between “Dearest” and “Elsie”:

 

“Fred told us that you’d found some wonderful new children’s toys for Christmas. Very up-to-date I gather. When do we get some?”

 

If a phone-hacker listening in should want to decode that to mean: “For God’s sake have they found those missing schoolboys yet, and are the transistor sets safe that they were carrying;” I’d reckon that the phone-hacker would be out of his mind!

 

Jerry Dowlen

February 2012

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
 
 

Volume 15 No. 3 March 2012

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THE SMALL PRINT: Books Monthly is published on or before the first day of every month and contains news and reviews of new and forthcoming books, together with information on classic books and series. It has been on the web since 1998. Contributions to Books Monthly are welcome but I regret there is no payment as no money is made from this site. Short stories, longer stories (which could be serialised), feature articles and book reviews are particularly welcome. Use the "contact me" link in the menu above to get in touch. Publishers wishing to submit books for review should also contact me via email in the first instance, and I will supply a delivery address. I generally close the magazine to new reviews on the 20th of each month. Books received after that date will be carried over to the next month, although I may include them for information purposes only. Books Monthly is copyright © Paul Norman. Articles, stories and reviews submitted by other people remain their own copyright. All artwork including book covers included in Books Monthly is copyright © the various publishers and artists. Where possible, permission is sought from artists to include their work on the site.