First published: UK, Heinemann, 1937; US, Doubleday, 1937
When Mr. Campion walked into the Argosy Theatre at the invitation of Uncle William Faraday, whose “reinforced” memoirs had provided the book for the musical show there, he walked into a mystery as absorbing and far more personally upsetting than any of his career. Miss Allingham’s book is a mystery which, without sacrificing any of the thrill and suspense of the pure detective tale, is also a sincere and moving novel.
The picturesque company surrounding Jimmy Sutane, the dancer, are living creations whose difficulties and desires excite our sympathy as well as our interest.
The child and her dog, the magnificent old doctor, and the man who found himself faced by the prospect of making an impossible decision are not creatures of the imagination, but human flesh-and-blood people whom we get to know and love.
When Flowers For The Judge attained best-sellerdom, Allingham enthusiasts felt highly gratified. Those same enthusiasts will be even more delighted with Dancers in Mourning, as it has, in addition to an expert plot, a cast of characters most unusual and very deftly portrayed.
When Albert Campion visited the Argosy Theater he was only mildly interested in the chain of small events that seemed to be persecuting Jimmy Sutane, premier dancer and producer, but he was so much attracted by the fabulous Sutane that in spite of his better judgement he accepted an invitation to visit him at White Walls, his country house.
The guests and members of the household were as odd and from the same make-believe world as Sutane himself, all connected in some capacity with his successful musical show. When Sutane burst into White Walls, shouting hysterically that he had killed Chloe Pye when his car ran over her, the police were summoned, and Campion had an opportunity to do some investigating for himself, which convinced him that poor tawdry Chloe, a once popular dancer who was trying a come-back, had been dead before hre body was tossed in front of Sutane’s car. Then a bomb exploded on a crowded station platform and Campion knew he must stop a vicious, irresponsible killer. The memory of “the porter’s wife,” a victim of that ghastly accident, kept him moving forward until the case was completed.
More even than the unique plot of this book the reader will remember the characters, the situations, Campion at his best, and Jimmy Sutane’s marvellous dancing feet beating a steady rhythm, sometimes in tragic mood, sometimes in gaiety, but always dancing.
“Theatrical people aren’t like ordinary people, sir… They’re theatrical. Things mean more to them than they would to you or me—little things do… Being in the theatre is like living in a little tiny village where everybody’s looking at everybody else and wondering what they’re going to be up to next.”
Margery Allingham’s strengths were her characterisation, her imagination and her style. Here she creates a theatrical world of dancers, some in passionate and self-destructive love affairs, others epicene, but all are real—all are vivid. And no less vivid is Mr. Campion, whose emotions suffer due to his love for the wife of the man he suspects of having committed three particularly brutal murders. The second of these murders, an exploding bicycle in a railway station, is shocking and sensational without being in any way improbable. It is not only Campion who suffers: it is the suspects themselves, all stressed, all worrying, all hoping for an end to the nightmare. And it is because we care for them as people that we turn the pages so quickly to a most ingenious solution.
An extraordinary work, one of the two or three best things she ever wrote. Albert Campion becomes less of an ingenuous (or seemingly so) ass and completes his transformation into human being ready for the emotional and criminal complexities of The Fashion in Shrouds. His love for the wife of Jimmy Sutane, the dancer whom he suspects of the murders of an ageing comedienne, a highly effeminate understudy and a crowd of innocent bystanders, and a Polish bomb-maker, blinds him to the real truth: the truth the reader should have suspected had he not seen everything and felt everything so keenly from Campion’s perspective, for the type of murders correspond to only one man’s psychology—Allingham’s gift for characterisation, which makes all her characters genuine people in the Dickensian manner (e.g. Chloe Pye’s ghastly sister-in-law and the inquisitive neighbour), means that her murderers are always unique individuals.
Observer (Torquemada, 20th June 1937):
CAMPION, MACNAB AND MAYO
I read a recent praise, as George Moore might have called it, which intimated that Dancers in Mourning sweeps up Margery Allingham with one swoop to the company of the select elect. Here is a bouquet without a background, flowers for the author, in fact, and emphatically not flowers for the judge; for if ever a writer has made a steady progression in excellence from first book to latest, Miss Allingham has done so. Only little advance, it is true, was possible from Death of a Ghost to Flowers for the Judge, and even less from the latter to the present work; but such as they were those advances have been made. Always of the elect, Margery Allingham now towers among them. After being given in turn the intimacies of painting and publishing, we are introduced this time to the intimacies of back-stage in revue. We go “behind” with Campion at an awkward moment, for someone is trying to ruin Jimmy Sutane’s show with a series of practical pin-pricks. There follows a murder near the Sutane home, then a detestable massacre, and finally another murder. Miss Allingham most ably adds to our bewilderment by enticing us to see things through Campion’s eyes, which are love blinded for the first time, and consequently to suffer with him the fear that is father to the thought. So Dancers in Mourning is, on the whole, a tragedy, delightfully written, and acted by very real people. It has for relief not only the scarcely effable Uncle William, but also Magersfontein Lugg’s inevitably equal friendship with six-year-old Sarah Sutane, and the latter’s education in lock-picking and the three-card trick.
Times Literary Supplement (Mrs. Elizabeth L. Sturch, 3rd July 1937):
This is one of those detective stories in which atmosphere is at least as important as fact, not only in catching the reader’s attention but in preparing his mind for the problem’s logical solution. Miss Allingham is one of the more distinguished writers of this type of mystery, and this time she has chosen a background which heightens her already naturally vivid descriptive style.
Jimmy Sutane is a dancer who carries practically the whole of that successful revue, The Buffer, on his shoulders – or rather on his quick and clever feet; he also carries the responsibility for a wife and child and a big estate and household at “White Walls”, about twenty miles from London. So when he begins to be the victim of a series of petty persecutions – pins in the grease-paint and garlic in the bouquets – he doesn’t wait until his tight-strung nerves have gone to pieces before calling in the well-known Mr. Campion to find out who is the practical joker. Campion goes down to “White Walls” for a week-end which the dancers spend in rehearsing, and he in falling in love with Sutane’s young wife, Linda; so that the mysterious death that night of an actress who was also a fellow-guest comes as a dreadful shock to him. He tries to keep out of the investigation and is intensely distressed as clues seem to point towards Sutane – for he scarcely wishes to see Linda as a murderer’s widow. But soon the criminal’s activities reach a point where the police become frantic and Campion realises that personal feelings must not be allowed to stop him from finding out the truth if he can. The problem which he then settles down to tackle is an ingenious and fascinating one; and he manages to leave everyone suitably happy by a neat and unexpected twist at the very end.
C. Day Lewis in the Book Society News:
I’ve not read a better detective novel for years.
The Daily Herald (London):
One of the rarer pleasurers of a reviewer’s routine is to watch an author climb steadily to the top of his or her tree. That has happened, in my case, with Margery Allingham…With each succeeding tale she has increased my respect and delight. And in Dancers in Mourning she is better than ever…This is an extremely distinguished performance. The writing shines. The characters live – or die. In short, it is Miss Allingham’s day.
The Times (London):
Dancers in Mourning has all the precise and individual flavour of all this author’s books…Discerning readers will discover that…here is no machine-made plot but a murder mystery in which real people are involved.
Milward Kennedy in The Sunday Times (London):
Each book that Margery Allingham writes is proof that a detective story can and should be just as much of a novel as anything else that is labelled fiction – as much and as good as a novel.
Daily Mail (London):
Dancers in Mourning is lively, individual and intelligent, and the author’s unexpected solution of her mystery is really brilliant.