By Ian G. Wilson
If you love your classic mysteries with a healthy dose of romance, then Safer than Love will quickly become a favorite. Margery Allingham is one of the lesser lights of the pantheon of the Golden Age of British mystery. Like the Greek goddess Hestia, her work is underrated. But no less an authority than P.D. James referred to her as a Queen of Crime.
Our protagonist and narrator is Elizabeth Lane, recently but unhappily married to the headmaster at a boys’ school in an English village called Tinworth. She is a former nurse and is eager to have an ideal marriage, in which she has a loving husband who doesn’t abandon her to go on mountaineering expeditions during the school holidays. It is now summer, and most everyone has headed to their vacation destinations. The residents of the town are curious to see just how Victor Lane’s young wife will react to what they know is his stern and uncompromising nature. In the following quote, you can see both this curiosity and a comment on the nature of small town life. What Elizabeth doesn’t realize at the time is that this stifling closeness is what will save her from the gallows.
“Her last question brought her head level with me and she did the thing all Tinworth seemed to do, pausing and looking into one’s eyes and investing ordinary trivial questions with direct inquiry. As usual it put me slightly at a disadvantage. To say outright that I’d temporarily forgotten that the day before yesterday all the boys and most of the masters had gone home for the summer holidays, and that yesterday the majority of the domestic staff had dispersed also, would be about as silly as mentioning that one had forgotten a recent earthquake or an invasion in arms. On the other hand, if one said that as far as one’s own life was concerned it appeared to make no difference at all, I knew a shadow of suppressed excitement would float over that bovine countenance of peaches and cream and would want to know why. To do it justice, Tinworth never minded asking.”
Shortly into the first part of the novella, Elizabeth meets her old flame, Andy, who practically kidnaps her and takes her on a wild ride in his sports car around the town while trying to explain what went wrong between them:
“’It frightened you out of all reason, all proportion,‘ he said. ‘I ought to have understood it and been prepared for it but I wasn’t. You’ve grown up obsessed by the broken marriage of your parents which spoilt your childhood, and you were determined not to make the same mistake. Therefore, when you saw yourself as you thought in love with a drunken ne’er-do-well (I’m not blaming you, woman, I’m simply clarifying your mind for you) you panicked, and to save yourself from love you took a safe offer which happened to come along at that particular moment.”
Elizabeth is outraged by his forwardness and tries to cool down with a bike ride into the country, but his words have left her feeling the need to confront her husband and announce that their marriage is through. Victor has, however, disappeared, and Elizabeth wonders if he is having an affair. When Victor turns up dead at the bottom of a well, she and Andy become the prime suspects in a murder inquiry. The police officer in charge of the case is a devious character, all smiles and jokes to begin with, but if he senses a weakness in the suspect’s story, he goes in for the kill. Here he is when Elizabeth first meets him, hovering in her bedroom at the school:
“The Superintendent arrived about midnight. His appearance was quiet and sudden, like an amiable demon’s in a children’s play. He made no sound at all. One moment I was dozing with my eyes closed against the bright light, and the next, when I opened them, there he was smiling at me from the middle of the room. As soon as I set eyes on him I knew who he was and why he had got his nickname. He was plump and grey-haired and amusingly ugly, with a face that could have been designed by Disney. His eyebrows were tufts over bright little eyes which danced and twinkled and seemed ever stretched to their widest. His old tweed clothes were a little too tight for him, so that he looked disarmingly shabby, and his step was the lightest and most buoyant I have ever seen. The moment I saw him I felt assured.”
How Elizabeth is going to extract herself from a murder charge is the subject of the rest of the story. Given the brevity of Safer than Love, I’m not convinced that the mystery is as well developed as it could be (not in the sense of an Agatha Christie novel, for example), but it has to be remembered that Allingham is weaving two stories into one short novella: the murder mystery is one; how Elizabeth and her former lover come to terms with each other and with small town life is the second and perhaps more relevant of the two here. Allingham has to work within the confines of the structure she has chosen, some of which bear more relation to a short story than to a full length book. It certainly makes for a breakneck pace to resolve the plot points, which is part of why it’s such an enjoyable read.
Where Safer than Love is most effective is in character development and setting. It is easy to understand Elizabeth’s annoyance with being quizzed by the nosy townsfolk about her marriage because the dialog and actions of the people she meets are so precisely described. I got an even greater sense of what it is like to be a newcomer to Tinworth than Christie’s St. Mary Mead. And the town’s buildings and surroundings are ably depicted. For that reason alone, I would recommend Safer than Love. Readers familiar with small town life will understand immediately Elizabeth’s predicament. There is a strong psychological element, too, between Elizabeth’s reluctance to divorce her husband due to her own childhood experiences and the Superintendent’s playing mind games with her.
I love this period in British crime writing, after World War II, when it wasn’t necessary to sex up a mystery to make it tempting. Everything is very decorously handled, and plot and characters come to the fore. In Allingham’s case, the book is so lively with its vivid characterizations and outstanding dialog, there is no need for graphic bloodletting to make it entertaining.
Margery Allingham was born in 1904, and is best known as the creator of the upper class detective Albert Campion. He appeared in some eighteen novels written by Allingham and several books written by other authors. She died of breast cancer in 1966. P.D. James classed her with Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and Ngaio Marsh as one of the great authors of the Golden Age of British detective fiction.
Greenville Public Library’s copy of Safer than Love was published in 2000 by G.K. Hall and Company. Originally, the 172-page novella was part of a collection of two pieces, released in 1954 as No Love Lost.