I’ve noted that Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion books get more serious as the series goes along. The Fashion in Shrouds is the most serious yet. The madcap adventurer of the previous books is no more, the mask of affable idiocy Campion used to wear has been replaced by a more care-worn expression, and the mystery is all too close to home.
In this novel, he meet Campion’s sister Valentine, a successful fashion designer who’s in love with aircraft designer Alan Dell. Unfortunately, Val’s close friend, the actress Georgia Wells, has designs, too, but her designs are on Alan, and, despite being married herself, she wins him away from Val. Campion had known Georgia a few years earlier, when her fiance, George Portland-Smith, went missing. He had spent some time trying to find out what happened, and, as the novel opens, he has just found Portland-Smith’s body, apparently long-dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
So we have a series of love triangles. In the present, there’s Val and Georgia and Alan; plus, Georgia and Alan and Georgia’s husband, Raymond Ramillies. In the past, there was Georgia and George and Raymond. And there’s a dead body with more bodies and more triangles to come. Val’s heart and the reputation on which she built her career are both at stake as scandal and possible murder invade her circle.
I’ve gotten used to the fact that I’m unlikely to solve the murders in an Allingham novel; I’m not even sure if it’s possible, most of the time. With her stories, I’m in it for the adventure, but this book is not an adventure story in the way her early mysteries are. She’s going in more for psychological drama. She’s taken tentative steps in that direction in previous books, particularly Dancers in Mourning, but here she digs in, examining the power of reputation and class and the relations between the sexes. The pacing is slower than in her other books–I thought it took much too long to get warmed up. And Campion thinks as much about the effects of the mystery on the people around him as he does about the mystery itself.
The women in this book grapple with how to have careers and how to negotiate relationships, just as women do today. I don’t think there’s a particularly good argument to be made that this is a feminist novel—it sometimes seems to take the opposite view, as I’ll discuss below—but the women in this book have drive and ambition, and they use it.
The most troubling moment comes when Campion tells Val she needs “a good rape.” Even in context, I cannot find an excuse for this remark. It’s not something I’ve come across before in fiction from this period, so I cannot write it off as something people said thoughtlessly without thinking about it—the way people say uptight women today just need to “get laid.” (And even though that’s not half as offensive as what Campion says, it’s a pretty offensive remark that people need to stop making.) Campion’s words are irresponsible and shocking, whatever the context, but it’s unclear to me whether Allingham is endorsing this thought by putting it in Campion’s mouth. Val, quite rightfully, responds with shock and anger to his words and makes it clear that what he says is wrong. Campion’s past history, too, shows that he’s just not good at women. He falls for them, and they like him, but they always choose someone else. That’s not an excuse for his words, just a reason to think we’re not supposed to see him as an expert on women.
Other aspects of the story feel more like the typical sexism of the time, with women being perceived as overly emotional and dependent on men. The resolution to Val’s story and the choice she makes is likely to be troubling to the modern mind but would have been less so in the 1930s. Even today, her choice is one that many women make of their own free will. It’s not a wrong choice, just wrong when it’s treated as the only right choice, and I don’t think it is here. The way that the choice is presented is disgusting, however, and I wish she had chosen differently. Honestly, if someone in her situation came to me asking my advice, I’d say to run in a different direction as fast as she could. But in the 1930s, what happens might be perceived as romantic, and I think that’s how it was meant, but if the same words came from a 21st century writer, they’d mean something entirely different.
The brightest spot in the book is the reintroduction of Amanda Fitton, who previously appeared in Sweet Danger. The energetic teenager has grown up and now works as an engineer in Alan Dell’s factory. She quickly becomes Campion’s right-hand woman, faking an engagement with him so that she can be welcomed into the inner circle. Frequently, she’s able to find out things that Campion could not, and the resolution hinges on her cool head and quick thinking. In fact, her actions and attitude undercut a lot of is said about and among the women of Val’s circle. There’s no one right way of being a woman in this book. The book explores the complexity of womanhood and the relationships between men and women, but I don’t think it draws any obvious conclusions.