Margery Allingham was born in Ealing, London in 1904 to a family immersed in literature. Her father, Herbert, and her mother, Emily Jane (née Hughes), were both writers; Herbert was editor of the Christian Globe and The New London Journal (to which Margery later contributed articles and Sexton Blake stories), before becoming a successful pulp fiction writer, while Emily Jane was a contributor of stories to women’s magazines. Soon after Margery’s birth, the family left London for Essex, where they lived in an old house in Layer Breton, a village near Colchester. She attended a local school and then the Perse School for Girls in Cambridge, all the while writing stories and plays; she earned her first fee at the age of eight, for a story printed in her aunt’s magazine.
Upon returning to London in 1920, she studied drama and speech training at Regent Street Polytechnic, which cured a stammer she had suffered since childhood; it was at this time that she first met her future husband, Philip Youngman Carter.
Her first novel, Blackkerchief Dick, was published in 1923 when she was 19. It was allegedly based on a story she heard during a séance, though later in life this was debunked by her husband. Nevertheless, Allingham continued to include occult themes in many novels. Blackkerchief Dick was well received, but was not a financial success. She wrote several plays in this period, and attempted to write a serious novel, but finding her themes clashed with her natural light-heartedness, she decided instead to try the mystery genre.
She wrote steadily through her school days. After her return to London in 1920 she enrolled at the Regent Street Polytechnic, where she studied drama and speech training in a successful attempt to overcome a childhood stammer. Here she wrote the verse play Dido and Aeneas, which was performed at St. George’s Hall and the Cripplegate Theatre. Allingham played the role of Dido; the scenery was designed by Philip Youngman Carter, whom she would marry in 1927.
Her breakthrough occurred in 1929 with the publication of The Crime at Black Dudley. This introduced Albert Campion, albeit originally as a minor character. He returned in Mystery Mile, thanks in part to pressure from her American publishers, much taken with the character. By now, with three novels behind her, Allingham’s skills were improving, and with a strong central character and format to work from, she began to produce a series of popular Campion novels. At first she had to continue writing short stories and journalism for magazines such as The Strand Magazine, but as her Campion saga went on, her following, and her sales, grew steadily. Campion proved so successful that Allingham made him the centerpiece of another 17 novels and over 20 short stories, continuing into the 1960s.
Campion is a mysterious, upper-class character (early novels hint that his family is in the line of succession to the throne), working under an assumed name. He floats between the upper echelons of the nobility and government on one hand and the shady world of the criminal class in the United Kingdom on the other, often accompanied by his scurrilous ex-burglar servant Lugg. During the course of his career he is sometimes detective, sometimes adventurer. As the series progresses he works more closely with the police and MI6counter-intelligence. He falls in love, gets married and has a child, and as time goes by he grows in wisdom and matures emotionally. As Allingham’s powers developed, the style and format of the books moved on: while the early novels are light-hearted whodunnits or “fantastical” adventures, The Tiger in the Smoke (1952) is more character study than crime novel, focusing on serial killer Jack Havoc. In many of the later books Campion plays a subsidiary role no more prominent than his wife Amanda and his police associates; by the last novel he is a minor character. In 1941, she published a non-fiction work, The Oaken Heart, which described her experiences in Essex when an invasion from Germany was expected and actively being planned for, potentially placing the civilian population of Essex in the front line.