The Crime at Black Dudley by Margery Allingham
I’ve probably moaned before about the knotty problem of trying to decide what to book to take on a train journey and for a day out; and the issue reared its head again when I had my lovely LT meet up recently. I had just finished one book and was expecting a review copy – which actually arrived just before I left for my trip! However, the review book was big and heavy, and I really didn’t fancy lugging it round London with me, especially if I was going to be buying more books….
Fortunately, I spotted a small pile of Margery Allinghams – I picked up a set of three when someone at work was putting in a Book People order, and at £5 for the set it seemed rude not to! And since this included the first Albert Campion title, published in 1929, that seemed like the ideal kind of light read (mentally and physically!) for my journey. Back in my twenties I read stacks of Golden Age crime fiction, and I really would struggle to tell you now which titles I read. Allingham was one of the ones I loved, and I made my way through a lot of Albert Campion stories. I remember enjoying them very much; however, when I read “The Tiger in the Smoke” recently, Campion actually didn’t have the major part so I was keen to see how he appeared in his first story.
Black Dudley itself is a country house deep in the wilds of East Anglia. Visiting for the weekend is George Abbershaw, a somewhat staid young man; a pathologist by trade and occasional assistant of Scotland Yard, he was at college with the owner of the house, Wyatt Petrie, and his interest in attending the house party is mainly the presence of Meggie, a flame haired young woman who makes him want to behave in an altogether more lively fashion than he usually does! Also present are Colonel Coombe, Wyatt’s uncle by marriage who lives in the house; the Colonel’s doctors and rather sinister friends; a random group of bright young things known to Wyatt; and a rather strange young man called Albert Campion, who nobody actually seems to know and nobody actually seems to have invited!
The house is, of course, dark and creepy and full of secret passages and family legends, the latter involving the Black Dudley dagger which is supposed to reveal a person’s guilt. Wyatt suggests they play the traditional game whereby the dagger is passed round in the dark, although Abbershaw is not at all happy about that. Needless to say, things go wrong and someone is murdered. However, all is not what it seems; Abbershaw and another doctor, Prenderby, are both asked to sign a death certificate without seeing the body; and an important possession has gone missing which some of the residents are very, very keen to get hold of. Suddenly, the guests are prisoners in the house, being held by a sinister gang with no way to escape. But can they trust Albert Campion, a man who seems to know more about what is going on than any of them?
“The Crime at Black Dudley” was a fabulous read, and perfect for a slow train journey! Allingham’s writing is excellent and atmospheric, and this was pure Golden Age crime fiction. What was particularly interesting was to see that in Campion’s first appearance, he was not initially the main focus of the story! Abbershaw is quite obviously intended to be the detective and focal character, but as the book progresses Campion gradually comes to the fore, almost as if Allingham changed her mind as she was writing and decided that he would be a much more interesting detective than her initial choice!
And I have to agree with that, as Albert Campion is definitely a more nuanced character than Abbershaw. In fact, here he is very much in silly ass mode, resembling early Wimsey or someone from a P.G. Wodehouse tale, so much so that his fellow guests struggle to deal with him:
Martin looked at him wonderingly. ‘Do you always talk bilge?’ he said
‘No,’ said Mr. Campion lightly, ‘but I learnt the language reading advertisements.’
However, this is obviously an act, as when the going gets tough it is Campion who comes up with solutions and proves that despite his protestations to the contrary, he can handle a gun and deal with the physical stuff. And the threat the guests are facing is very real and convincing; the baddies may be a little cartoonish but they are pretty nasty and although nothing unpleasant takes place on camera, it *is* implied. This may be the world of Golden Age mysteries, but it’s not a place where the crimes are lightweight and the villains trite.
The thought that possessed Abbershaw’s mind was the pity of it – such a good brain, such a valuable idealistic soul. And it struck him in a sudden and impersonal way that it was odd that evil should beget evil. It was as if it went on spreading in ever-widening circles, like ripples round the first splash of a stone thrown into a pond.
Campion here is presented as something of a mystery man; his name is not his real one, he is working outside of the law, and Abbershaw has come across him before. In fact, at one point Campion whispers to him the name of his mother, and Abbershaw is dumbstruck. All of these elements do make him a better choice as a major character!
“Crime…” actually ended up having several resolutions plus plenty of twists and turns, as the two issues of the murder and the disappearing property appeared to have separate perpetrators. I was beautifully bamboozled by all of this, and thought the final ending was rather wonderful. Abbershaw and his Meggie were lovely creations, but I’m glad Allingham decided to go with Campion as her detective instead – he’s a much more interesting character, and now I’m really keen to get on with reading more of the Albert Campion stories. Luckily, there are at least two more lurking on Mount TBR…. 🙂