Several hours after completing The Fashion In Shrouds I am still baffled by what I really think of the book. On the one hand it is a perfectly competent murder mystery set in in upper class 1930s London. Amateur sleuth Campion is suitably snobbish, the characters are all either High Society or Commoners and we can easily tell the difference by the cringe-worthy accents of the latter. With his discovery of a suspicious suicide on his mind, Campion undertakes his own investigation into what happened and his winding path to the denouement is nicely done and satisfying. It is interesting that the priority is frequently not actually the unveiling of a murderer, but the prevention of scandal. Under no account must anything be revealed to Journalists!
What I struggled with though is Allingham's ambiguous attitude to her female characters. Four are wonderfully successful in their chosen careers - Georgia, an actress; Val, a couturier; Lady Papendeik, Val's employer; and Amanda, an aircraft engineer. For so many such independent and influential women to appear in a single 1930s novel could have led me to trumpet this as another of my Feminist February book reviews. However the non-stop barrage of viciously misogynistic statements, from male and female characters alike, put paid to that within the first few pages and I kept reading mostly in disbelief. Women are silly and hysterical; Campion repeatedly dismisses Amanda's logical deductions as just female luck in jumping to conclusions and, my own favourite, consoles his sister Val over her stolen boyfriend by saying 'This is damned silly introspective rot. What you need, my girl, is a good cry or a nice rape.' This is a brother talking to his sister! All through this book I couldn't decide whether Allingham actually meant to be derogatory or satirical? The chauvinism is so heavy handed, even by 1930s standards, that it frequently jarred, especially in contrast to the obvious talents and business acumen of the women being undermined.
The icing on the cake though, and I feel it is appropriate to recount so near to Valentine's Day, is this romantic marriage proposal:
Will you marry me and give up to me your independence, the enthusiasm which you give your career, your time and your thought? I realise that I've made a fine old exhibition of myself with Georgia Wells, which has hardly enhanced my immediate value in the market, but I can't honestly say I regret the experience. However that is the offer...In return, mind you (I consider it an obligation), I should assume full responsibility for you. I would pay your bills to any amount which my income might afford. I would make all the decisions which were not directly your province, although on the other hand I would like to feel I might discuss everything with you if I wanted to; but only because I wanted to, mind you; not as your right. And until I died you would be the only woman. You would be my care, my mate as in plumber, my possession if you like. If you wanted your own way in everything you'd have to cheat it out of me...It means the other half of my life to me, but the whole of yours.
The Fashion In Shrouds was written almost eighty years ago and I for one am so very grateful for every minute of feminist advance in those years!