Last year, I gave up on Cannonball Read in February. I kept reading, but the pressure to review got to be too much, and I ended up too far behind. This year, I’m not going for quantity, but instead am aiming to tackle all the books that I’ve bought over the years that for one reason or another have sat unread on my shelves.
The first of these books is The Fashion in Shrouds by Margery Allingham, which I bought several years ago at Hatchard’s because a character in another book (Lola from This Charming Man by Marian Keyes, if anyone’s interested) had read it. I generally enjoy murder mysteries, and Margery Allingham, who wrote primarily in the 30s through the 60s, has been favourably compared to Agatha Christie. There are definitely similarities in tone, syntax, and characterisation between this book and some early Christies. The difference is that much of the period-accurate-but-inappropriate-for-modern-audiences language in Christie’s books has been cleaned up in later editions, while this book is… unabridged. Specifically, the n-word is used, multiple times, in a casually imperialistic, waning-days-of-the-British-Empire sort of way that despite not being explicitly hateful is still appalling. I have no doubt that this language is period accurate (the book was written in 1938 and set in 1936), but the shock of it took me right out of the story. Anyone who is triggered by racist language is going to want to give this one a wide berth.
And then, there’s the sexism, which is so pervasive and fundamental to this book that expurgating it would reduce the word count by half. The female characters here are talented professionals at the top of their fields, yet they are treated by the male characters, the author, and indeed themselves with reductive, dismissive, patronising condescension that will infuriate any modern feminist. It’s bad. There’s even a rape joke. And yes, again, period-accurate, but that does not make it any less infuriating.
So there are a lot of negatives in this book. But, if you manage to overlook them, there’s a well-plotted murder mystery hidden beneath. The quality of the writing is good, and the characters are flawed in interesting ways. If I’d read this book 20 years ago, I’d have enjoyed it enough to read another Allingham. I’m almost curious enough to try again today, just to see if the problematic elements were a one-off or endemic to her writing. All things considered, though, I probably won’t.