‘Extraordinary how potent cheap music is,’ Noël Coward once wrote. The same could be said of cheap fiction, but who remembers Herbert St Clair, David Pitt, or Victoria Strong? The man behind all these, and many other pseudonyms, was thoroughly consigned to oblivion until Julia Jones’s diligent attempt to uncover his career. Herbert Allingham was the anonymous hack – or craftsman, as Jones rightly encourages us to think of him – who wrote almost a hundred serials, from Barrington’s Fag and The Lights of Home to Married to a Monster and Deserted. They reached an immense audience, with the periodicals in which he appeared selling up to 500,000 copies a week.
Despite the picturesque titles, Jones has an uphill task to make Allingham’s output interesting: his melodramatic and repetitive work doesn’t seem to inspire the kind of tongue-in-cheek relish with which one might discuss Fu Manchu or Biggles. Much of the entertainment in this book is provided by the incorporation of pictures from the stories, with their captions: ‘“Can you scrub floors?” she asked eagerly’; ‘Harvey Price stood motionless as Marion lifted the poisoned peach to her lips’; ‘“Sergeant Sims, I think you will find your man behind that screen,” said the baronet smoothly.’
Jones’s particular enthusiasm for Allingham’s work concerns his sympathy with the working classes and the material conditions of their lives. After a baronet’s daughter escapes from a private asylum with her baby, she finds work helping a coster girl for a shilling a day, minus fourpence for a woman to