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MR CAMPION RETURNS

Written by Duncan Torrens

Is Mike Ripley in danger of becoming something of a crime-writing National Treasure? His entry in the 2009 British Crime Writing Encyclopedia certainly hinted at the prospect and his latest project might just seal the deal as he revives the career of one of the most-loved characters from the ‘Golden Age’ of English crime fiction, Albert Campion, with his completion of a novel started almost 45 years ago.

Best known for his award-winning ‘Angel’ series of comic thrillers, Ripley reviewed almost 1,000 crime novels in a twenty year span as a critic for the Sundayand Daily Telegraphs and the Birmingham Post, as well as contributing to The Times, the Guardian and numerous magazines. He now writes Shots’ monthly Getting Away With Murder column as ‘The Ripster’ from the comfort of his East Anglian estate Ripster Hall, which mysteriously does not appear on Google Earth….

Duncan Torrens: For the uninitiated, would you explain who Albert Campion was – or should that be ‘is’?

Mike Ripley: The one thing we know is that Albert Campion isn’t his real name! He was created by Margery Allingham and made his first appearance in her fiction in 1929 and she hinted at royal connections, though her only admission was that, enigmatically, his real name was ‘Rudolph K –’ but in his private life, he is always known as Albert Campion. He was an ‘adventurer’ rather than a private detective and one of great gentleman amateur sleuths of the1930s, always ranked alongside Hercule Poirot and Lord Peter Wimsey. What made Campion stand out for me was that Margery Allingham allowed him to mature and age over the years, whereas Dorothy Sayers abandoned her hero to a happy marriage in 1937 and Agatha Christie’s Poirot was, in effect, timeless. By the time I take up Campion’s story, he’s well into his sixties and seriously considering retirement, or at least taking it easy.

DT: So are we going back into the ‘Golden Age’ of English crime writing?

MR: Campion’s fictional heritage is certainly ‘Golden Age’ but Margery Allingham was still writing about him when she died in 1966. It was Margery’s husband, Pip Youngman Carter, who completed her unfinished novel Cargo of Eagles, which was published posthumously in 1968. Youngman Carter, who had collaborated with his wife on the earlier Campion stories as well as designing many of her book jackets (he was an artist and journalist) , then continued the series with two more novels – Mr Campion’s Farthing and Mr Campion’s Falcon – and had started a third when he died in late 1969. He left only a fragment of the novel, about four chapters, and no plan or synopsis. It is that Youngman Carter fragment which I have completed as Mr Campion’s Farewell.

DT: How did you discover this missing fragment?

MR: I didn’t. All Youngman Carter’s papers were left to Margery’s sister Joyce Allingham and on her death in 2001 they passed to the Margery Allingham Society, whose members had been discussing it and wondering what to do with it for several years. It was only when I was invited to speak at the Society’s convention in 2010 that I heard about the story – or the start of a story – which the Society had called ‘Mr Campion’s Swansong’ as the piece didn’t actually have a title. In 2012 the Society bravely – some might say foolishly – took up my offer to complete the novel and after a gap of 44 years it is published.

DT: SoMr Campion’s Farewell finally appears. Is it really farewell to the hero?

MR: Oh no, it’s a farewell not a funeral. The genius of Margery Allingham was to have her hero age and mature more or less as she did. He started off as almost an upper-class twit, clearly inspired by Bertie Wooster, but quickly showed intelligence, then growing maturity as the years passed. By the time Youngman Carter took up the series, Campion was a much different character to the ‘silly ass’ figure who stumbled in to Allingham’s classic country-house mystery The Crime at Black Dudley in 1929. I’ve kept the time frame as contemporary to when Youngman Carter was writing, so the book is set in 1969 and Campion is well into his sixties; still fit and active, but perhaps thinking of taking it easy.

DT: Have you departed from the Allingham series’ story arc on this?

MR: Although I’m not too sure what you mean by ‘story arc’, I don’t think so. I feel there were indications in Margery’s novel The Mind Readers in 1963 that Campion was ‘getting too old for all this excitement’ and there’s a graphic and quite brilliant scene in that novel where Campion gets beaten up by a much younger man. Had Margery lived I think she would have had Campion as much more of a ‘wise old owl’ than an action hero and possibly introduced the Campions’ son Rupert as a suitable character to carry on the family business of ‘adventuring.’ In fact it fell to Youngman Carter, after Margery’s death, to give Rupert a solid supporting role and even a love interest, in Mr Campion’s Farthing. I have boosted the role of son Rupert (and daughter-in-law as she is now Perdita) in my novel as they are ideal characters to do the leg work while Albert works everything out.

DT: Was that indicated in the fragment of Youngman Carter’s manuscript you took over?

MR: No. The characters of Rupert Campion and Perdita Browning were established by him in his first solo Campion novel and I have re-used them in my continuation. In fact, Youngman Carter left absolutely nothing – either in the text or in his notes – to indicate which way the plot would pan out.

DT: Didn’t that deter you?

MR: No, because I took it as an opportunity, a challenge if you like, to make the most of what he had left, which was a set-up based on a specific place.

DT: This would be the village of Lindsay Carfax, right?

MR: Yes. He described, or hinted at, shady goings on in a historic Suffolk wool town which struck me as being inspired by the small and very beautiful town of Lavenham. I may be wrong, but that’s how I read it and as I had recently been teaching a creative crime writing course there I knew I it well. Once I had the setting firmly in mind and a central character as good as Albert Campion, the rest just flowed.

DT: Do you think Youngman Carter would approve of the end result?

MR: I have no idea. I only hope Margery Allingham might have looked on it kindly as I tried to make it as much fun as possible, and she was a writer who always showed a great sense of humour.

DT: Your reputation –

MR: Let’s not go there.

DT: – as a writer, I was going to say, is for comedy crime fiction, in fact you’ve won several awards for comic crime. Do you think dedicated Campion fans might worry that you are not taking their hero seriously enough?

MR: We’ll have to see about that. The thing is, Margery Allingham did put an enormous amount of fun into her writing and critics of the Youngman Carter continuations said that much of her humour was what was missing. I hope I’ve put that back. Early reactions from members of the Margery Allingham Society have been very encouraging and one die-hard Campion fan wrote to me more or less urging me to ‘go for it’ because, as she described it, Margery’s style had always been one of ‘coherent daftness’, which I think is a brilliant description. I wish I’d thought of it.

DT: How much research was involved in writing Mr Campion’s Farewell and was it difficult to do?

MR: The first thing I did was re-read Youngman Carter’s two Campion novels and in 2013 I actually ended up editing new editions of them for Ostara Publishing, getting them back into print for the first time in 30 years and doing them as eBooks for the first time. Then Barry Pike of the Allingham Society put me on to some of the short stories Youngman Carter had written and advised me to consult the Allingham Archive at the University of Essex. Once I thought I had a grasp of how he structured his books, my basic research was to go back through the Allingham canon to refresh my memory of Campion’s family history. That, of course, was a pleasure not a chore. For my setting and plot, I relied on my familiarity with Lavenham and Cambridge (where a fair chunk of the action takes place). That was another case of familiarity because in 1969, I was a teenager living in Cambridge – and reading Margery Allingham!

DT: Did you have any other help?

MR: There’s no one else but me to blame for mistakes, if that’s what you mean! I sent early drafts to novelist Andrew Taylor and to Julia Jones, Margery Allingham’s biographer, and both were very encouraging. Another Allingham expert (and Sherlockian), Roger Johnson, was invaluable in correcting points of Campion lore and also offered to provide a very attractive map of Lindsay Carfax for the book, working from my rather cack-handed outline sketch. In true Campion style, he offered to do it ‘for a guinea’ and so when I spoke about the book at the recent Essex Book Festival, I presented him with a guinea – two ten shilling notes and two sixpences, which I’d found on eBay. They cost me a damn sight more than £1.05p, but I thought it a gesture Margery would have approved of.

DT: You give the impression that you enjoyed reviving Albert Campion. Do you plan any more novels?

MR: It was a fascinating project and I was lucky to get a shot at doing it, but I couldn’t really resist having lived in ‘Allingham country’ for the last thirty-five years. And yes, I’d certainly like to do more, though perhaps not too many… Not that I’m superstitious, but Youngman Carter completed one Campion novel, then wrote two more and started a third – and then died at the age of 65. I’ve now completed one and if I wrote two more to be published in 2015 and 2016, then it would be 2017 when I would be starting a third and I will be 65 that year…

 

Mr Campion’s Farewell is published by Severn House on 8th April. Support SHOTS and buy it here

 

  

Mike Ripley at work in the Allingham Archive at Essex University.

Illustrations:

Youngman Carter and Margery Allingham at their Essex home.

Albert Campion, as sketched by Pip Youngman Carter.

 

Mike Ripley



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