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An Interview with Mike Ripley on the Enduring Appeal of the Albert Campion Novels

November 23, 2018

Mike Ripley

Mike Ripley has had a diverse and successful career as a writer. He made his name writing the Angel comedy crime novels. Fans of Shotsmag will know him for his ‘Getting Away With Murder’ column, which mixes genre news, literary gossip and publishing history to great effect. Ripley again put his encyclopaedic knowledge of genre matters to good use in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, a riveting study of post-war British thrillers.

Recently, he’s been writing the Albert Campion continuation novels. Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion is one of the most famous and enduring characters from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, and Ripley has done a fine job of honouring Allingham’s legacy while taking the character in a new direction. Of the five Campion novels Ripley has written, the most recent, Mr Campion’s War, is the darkest in tone and also, in my humble opinion, his best.

I’ve kept up a correspondence with Mike about all things crime fiction for several years now. We’ve met just once, at St Barts Pathology Museum when I was giving a lecture about the Black Dahlia surrounded by skulls and grisly diagrams. Mike has always been witty, knowledgeable and extremely generous, so I was delighted when he agreed to be interviewed by me about his lifelong fascination with and work on the Albert Campion series. The following exchange took place by email:

Interviewer: Tell us about your first memory of Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion novels. How did you discover the character and were you an instant fan?

Ripley: I was given a copy of Allingham’s Sweet Danger by a family friend, a Cambridge philosophy don who clearly thought that a yobbish 14-year-old from Yorkshire needed to improve his reading material and I was hooked from that moment on.  I read all Margery Allingham’s ‘Campion’ books between 1966 and 1968 and was quite distraught to think there would not be any more. (Margery died in 1966 but her husband Youngman Carter did two ‘continuations’ published in 1969 and 1970.)

In 1975 I got a job at Essex University and had to move down from Yorkshire, so I got out a map and started researching the area for a place to live. I was much taken by Mersea Island, just off the coast near Colchester and thought it looked familiar. Consulting my green Penguin edition of Margery’s thriller Mystery Mile, it was clear from the map provided that Mersea was the inspiration for the island which is the setting of the book, albeit transposed from Essex to Suffolk.

I never found a house (I could afford) on Mersea but I did move to Essex and have lived for the last forty years within ten miles of the Allingham family home, and Essex University now houses the Margery Allingham archive of personal papers.

In 2011 I was the guest speaker at the Allingham Society’s annual convention and it was there I heard of the third ‘Campion’ novel begun by Youngman Carter shortly before his death in 1969. Only three and a half chapters existed, there was no synopsis or plot outline and the Society, who had been left the untitled manuscript by Joyce Allingham, Margery’s sister and executor, had code-named it ‘Mr Campion’s Swansong’. At least one award-winning crime writer had been approached as a possible continuation/completion author, but had declined. I foolishly volunteered to have a go and the result was Mr Campion’s Farewell published in 2014.

The ‘farewell’ of the title was designed to be Campion’s farewell to a life of adventuring and amateur sleuthing as he was now getting on, although still as sharp as ever mentally. There was no way I could kill him off – he was not my character – as Colin Dexter had killed off Inspector Morse. (Colin used to shout “I did not kill him! He died of natural causes!” whenever anyone said that.) But his retirement did not last long, and four more novels have followed, the latest being Mr Campion’s War.

Albert Campion was a ‘gentleman sleuth’ of the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of English crime writing. Like Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, Campion was a Toff – possibly even more aristocratic – but where Wimsey had his former army batman as a butler, Campion had the magnificently-named Magersfontein Lugg, a former (but hardly reformed) cat burglar, as his manservant, sidekick and comedy stooge.  And where Lord Peter was the gifted amateur, dilettante detective, Campion was a semi-professional adventurer and private investigator with no qualms about being rewarded for his services.

Although his world was a world and a half away from anything I knew, I instantly took to Campion and began to appreciate what Allingham had done with the character. Unlike Hercule Poirot, who was retired (and therefore at least 65) when he made his first appearance in 1920, and therefore somewhere around 120 by the time of his last case, Albert Campion was not ageless, he actually got older and more mature as the years went by.

Margery Allingham

For all that she led a fairly sheltered life (unlike her husband) mostly deep in the Essex countryside (she only travelled to America once, despite huge sales of her books there), Margery Allingham’s novels did try and touch on topical themes and catch the atmosphere of each of the five decades in which she was published.

In her early thrillers (she sometimes called them her ‘pirate stories’) she depicted the jazz age era of gay young things enjoying country house parties and the world of fashion and the West End theatre, whilst reflecting the prevailing Victorian or Edwardian attitudes of the ruling classes, including snobbery and racism, and inserting touches of modernity such as American gangsters and organised crime and – uniquely – a woman attempting to make a career in aircraft design engineering. In Traitor’s Purse, published in February 1941 but probably written in late 1939, she accurately predicted a Nazi plan to subvert the British economy and an active Fifth Column and then, as with other fictional detectives, Albert Campion went off to war.

When he returned to post-war London it was to a damaged and depressed city and Campion, older, wiser and now a father, was himself a far more serious person. By the early 1960s, he was feeling his age and admitting that he was getting too old for ‘all this pulling guns and running around’ but he still remained as sharp as a whip.

Interviewer: In your opinion which novel is the greatest Campion story written by Allingham?

Ripley: Undoubtedly The Tiger in the Smoke (1952), a classic fight between good and evil in fog-bound London, is her greatest novel, although I am a great fan of her light-hearted thrillers from the early Thirties, especially Look To The Lady.

Interviewer: You’ve written five continuation novels in the Campion series now. How do you feel you’ve developed the character in a manner distinct from Allingham’s original vision?

Ripley: I’m not sure I have developed the character of Campion, but I certainly hope I have kept faith with him. Allingham made no secret of the fact that her character was ‘the same age as the century’ (and that as the series of books went on, she sometimes regretted this) but she kept faith with him and he became much more of a wise old owl rather than an action hero. By the time her widower Youngman Carter took up the continuation challenge, Campion was, in theory, well into his sixties and it was Youngman Carter who gave the Campions’ son Rupert a supportive role, which I have continued and expanded.

I have tried to develop the relationship between Campion and his wife Lady Amanda (14 years his junior and a successful aircraft designer) and the ensemble cast which Allingham established, notably Lugg for comic relief and Charles Luke, his main contact in the police. I have added very few recurring characters to the regular cast of favourites; notably Perdita, a wife for son Rupert (who was actually invented by Youngman Carter) and Precious Aird, a tough young American girl, of whom I think Margery would have approved. (She was fond of Americans.)

One thing I am very conscious of is that Allingham – as Agatha Christie famously observed – tried to make each novel different from her last one, either in tone, structure, subject matter or setting. That is quite difficult, especially when one has an established cast of beloved characters whom the readers always demand to be in the story. I have tried to follow Allingham’s modus operandi as best I can, ringing the changes by setting one novel in a Yorkshire mining village, way out of Campion’s normal hunting ground (London and East Anglia), a double flashback plot to the Abdication crisis in 1936 and an unsolved murder in London’s ‘Little Italy’ in 1955, and most recently, the revelation of what Campion did in the war – a subject Allingham only hinted at.

Interviewer: You’re also known for your history of post-war British thrillers Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. Although they may seem worlds apart, do you see any similarities between the Golden Age Campion narratives and post-war spy thrillers?

Ripley: Margery Allingham rarely wrote straightforward ‘whodunits?’ and many of her novels could comfortably be classed as ‘thrillers’. Her one attempt at a 1960’s spy story, The Mind Readers, was, frankly, bonkers; and as a thriller writer, she was very much of the pre-war, pre-Bond era of John Buchan, Leslie Charteris, Selwyn Jepson and Edgar Wallace.

Unlike her contemporary Dorothy L. Sayers, who had a fairly low opinion of thrillers and advocated the pure ‘fair play’ detective story, Margery Allingham was interested in all the sub-genres of what today we would call crime fiction. She wrote with considerable insight into how the genre was constantly developing in the early 1930s, the late 1950s and, in the 1960s, even did a joint interview (by post) with the young and up-and-coming spy writer John le Carré, all of which I quote in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Margery even had good things to say about James Bond, a name which, I suspect, had never crossed Dorothy Sayers’ lips.

Interviewer: You’ve covered an expansive time-period in the novels so far, from the 1930s to the 1970s. Do you find this aspect of historical fiction challenging, and which decade has been your favourite to portray in fiction?

Ripley: I have used flashback techniques to the 1930s, 40s and 50s to flesh out the plot-lines in two of my Campions, but as I have tried to stick to the Campion chronology, the basic timeframe for my novels is 1969-70. The challenge for me is to put a Golden Age detective into the Swinging Sixties, which has been great fun. Allingham had a fairly relaxed, liberal attitude to young people (unlike her husband) and I think would have admired the sheer energy of the 1960s, especially in things such as fashion and popular music. I have been lobbied by die-hard Allingham fans to write a novel set in the 1930s, which is seen by many as Allingham’s heyday, but that’s a daunting prospect as my Campion would then be directly compared to the genuine article!

As to my favourite decade, I’d have to say 60-70 AD Roman Britain! Nothing to do with Albert Campion, but the setting for my first attempt at a historical novel, Boudica and the Lost Roman, which contains some really good jokes (in Latin).

Interviewer: Finally, are there any more Campion novels in the pipeline?

Ripley: There will be another in 2019, Mr Campion’s Visit, which harks back to his first appearance in 1929 in The Crime at Black Dudley. Forty years have passed since that country house murder mystery and the Black Dudley, a gloomy estate on the Suffolk Coast, is now the home of the new University of Suffolk Coastal and Campion is appointed ‘Visitor’ to mediate between students and staff. Naturally, there’s a murder to mark the start of a new term.

Where Mr Campion’s War had a thread of darkness, I have described this one as ‘a comedy of higher education and lower morals’ and it has given me great scope to poke fun at preening academics, militant students, architects and bumbling policemen surrounded by a cast of eccentric local characters of which I hope Margery would have approved.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 23, 2018 7:08 pm

    Interesting interview! Thanks, both, for sharing. And thank you for the kind link.

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