The Fashion in Shrouds (Margery Allingham)

By Margery Allingham

First published: UK, Heinemann, 1938; US, Doubleday, 1938

Blurb (UK)

Allingham - The Fashion in Shrouds.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

To few writers is it given that their work should earn them a reputation even while they are still learning their trade.  It is now sixteen years since, at the age of seventeen, Miss Allingham published her first adventure story.  Since then her books have been appearing steadily, each bearing fresh evidence of the author’s growing strength and perception.  Now, at the age of thirty-three, she has produced a mature work which in our opinion is not only a brilliant detective story but a convincingly realistic novel of modern times.

With his creator, Mr. Albert Campion also has matured and his efforts to save his sister Valentine’s happiness are the efforts of a grown man, experienced and sophisticated.  The problems he has to face are the problems of an ultra-fashionable modern world in which a double murder mystery has other aspects besides the mere excitement of a puzzle, a world in which publicity can be a menace from which the innocent may suffer.  As in all this writer’s work, the character-drawing is vivid and convincing, but Georgia is a creation who transcends all Miss Allingham’s previous portraiture.  She shines out of the book, beautiful, witty, feminine, vulgar, predatory, changeable as the wind and utterly charming.

There have been many attempts to ally the detective story with the novel, few of them wholly successful, but here at last is the powerful modern novel which has something to say about the world in which we live and which yet is also a gripping detective story with movement, mystery and the blessed element of surprise.

Blurb (US)

Allingham - The Fashion in Shrouds US.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

In this superb story Albert Campion investigates a three-year-old murder.  Two other murders which occurred during the investigation further complicated the most difficult task he had ever attempted.  It was made no easier by the theft of the dress designs, which seemed to be linked with an order for sixty cages of golden canaries, a freshly painted private dining room and the identity of the mysterious “third party” in a blackmail scheme.  Campion was nearly desperate when Lugg, mystery fiction’s funniest valet, suddenly produced the clue.

This put Campion on the track.  Little did the lugubrious Lugg know it, but he was playing Providence, inasmuch as the clue altered several destinies and led a murderer to the dock.

Margery Allingham has written in this long story one of the finest mysteries that we have had the pleasure of publishing.

My review

A tremendous achievement.  It’s at once an elegant and deftly-observed social satire in the manner of Thackeray, and an ingenious detective story – and excellent as both. Campion is in superb form throughout, both as detective pitting his wits against a superhuman Nemesis of a murderer, and as a lover (even going to the extent of throwing his fiancée in the lake during a quarrel); Lugg is as amusing as ever; and there is much interest in the character and methods of the villain, “who can set the murderous Machiavel to school,” weaving webs of a subtlety and diabolical ingenuity matched only by those of his creator.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Percy Ashley, 9th July 1938):

Even if the aid to detection which she supplies to the more experienced reader in the form of sympathetic treatment of a number of characters is counted a blemish, Miss Allingham’s Fashion in Shrouds is probably the best detective story produced this year.  It is beautifully planned and written, and it contains a judicious mixture of ingredients.  The first part of the book is mainly set in an expensive dress shop in Mayfair where the leading members of the theatrical profession buy their clothes.  The second part has for its scene an entertainment island built by the rich for the rich, complete with a private air-field and the pick of the world’s chefs.  There is nothing an average reader enjoys more than moving in a really well-to-do atmosphere.  Then there is a love interest provided by Mr. Albert Campion’s sister, a business woman, who sacrifices her career on the altar of old-fashioned marriage (her fiancé, having outrageously flirted with another woman, proceeds to make the most outrageous demands by way of a proposal).  But fortunately Mr. Campion, although he approaches the brink with a charming lady – they are even engaged – does not go over it; for he is growing very serious-minded already, almost as much so as the uxorious Lord Peter Wimsey, and what he would be like as a married man one shudders to think.  Finally, there is most admirable light relief provided by the extremely well-drawn character of the actress Georgia Wells, whose matrimonial adventures supply the book’s theme, and by Lugg, Mr. Campion’s delightful ex-convict factotum.  This is a novel which may be thoroughly recommended even to those who normally eschew detective fiction.


Observer (Torquemada, 10th July 1938):


To Albert Campion has fallen the honour of being the first detective to figure in a story which is also, even when judged by the fixed stars of criticism, a distinguished novel.  Margery Allingham’s publishers rightly claim on her belief that her work is “for the connoisseur of detective fiction”; but now that she has written The Fashion in Shrouds they can, if so they wish, drop the word “detective” from their slogan with perfect propriety.  Before dismissing the detective single, though, it should be stated that the pre-action death of Georgia Wells’s legal admirer, and the present murders of her husband and of the mannequin who once accompanied that husband to a night club in a colourable duplicate of Georgia’s own frock, provide a problem the solution of which it is not difficult to guess, owing to the author’s admirable fairness in limiting the number of her suspects.  But guessing and deduction are two very different things, and it will be a clever reader who arrives untimely at the correct answer though the joint method of motive and opportunity.  In the main murder, the scientific byway of method is relatively unimportant; it is also one which has been explored two or three times of late, notably by Josephine Bell.  It is, I repeat, as a novel that The Fashion in Shrouds really astonishes, for though the author’s last books showed that a new force was being born into contemporary narrative, none of them hinted at the searching comic power which is shown in their successor.  Besides the superbly studied Gloria Wells, there are three women of to-day rendered with a wise awareness which is almost of to-morrow, and, in addition to the now completely mature and distinguishable Campion, there are at least as many males who are almost as subtly apprehended.  And a final and gratifying astonishment is that, in the midst of all this admirable change, Magersfontein Lugg remains unchanged.


Time (31st October 1938):

An ambitious attempt at a rounded story of detection, in which Albert Campion expertly solves three deaths in a professional and artistic London circle.  Not only is it a skilful mystery, with a solution that stays in solution until the end, but it has good characterisations, and a competent job of novel-writing.


Evening News:

Here is a book which no connoisseur of detective fiction ought to miss.


The Times:

A new Allingham is a major event in detective fiction.


Evening Standard:

I place Margery Allingham among the first six present-day novelists.


Daly Herald:

The excitement is terrific…a glorious finish.


Milward Kennedy in the Sunday Times:

My opinion of Margery Allingham’s work is unchanged.  Once again she gives us a brilliant and entertaining book…and one that in almost any week of the year would inevitably head my list.


Times Literary Supplement (Patricia Craig, 18th July 1986):

First published in 1938, the novel in which the Allingham detective Albert Campion (who looks foolish but isn’t) attaches himself finally and irrevocably to Amanda Fitton (first encountered six years before in Sweet Danger).  It is also – quite apart from its crime-and-detection element – a fantasy of the beau monde, with Campion’s sister Val in the part of the worldly woman, the talented couturier and social success with a true feminine heart.  An odd revival for the 1980s, with its old-fashioned, anti-feminist froth getting in the way of the detecting interest.