The White Cottage Mystery by Margery Allingham

Despite my best efforts not to buy books, there are times when there’s no way I’m going to resist – and when I spotted these two sitting in a local charity shop for £1 each I knew it was one of those times…

Allingham is one of those authors whose books I’m always going to want to read; I love the Campion stories, and “Hide My Eyes is one of those. However, the other little volume is a short novel – novella almost at 139 pages – and it has a very intriguing history. “The White Cottage Mystery” was Allingham’s first detective story, originally published as a newspaper serial in 1928. It was never reissued later in book form as there was a need to edit out some of repetition which had been necessary by virtue of the serial format, so that readers would be reminded of previous events, and Allingham simply didn’t have the time. However, some years after her death, Allingham’s sister Joyce made those edits, and this version is the one presented here.

“White Cottage” features the detecting duo of Jerry Challoner and his father, the famous Scotland Yard man, Detective Chief Inspector W.T. Challoner, and engaging pair they make. The mystery begins with Jerry being deflected on a drive home to London, as he happens to be passing the White Cottage of the title when a murder is discovered. Eric Crowther, resident of the neighbouring house, the “Dene”, has been found in the dining room of the White Cottage with his head rather fatally damaged by a shotgun, which is lying on a nearby table. W.T., as he is known, appears pronto from the Yard and begins to look into the crime with his son in tow.

The problem is that just about every inhabitant of the White Cottage (and a few from the “Dene”) would have liked to see Crowther dead. Roger Christensen, wheelchair-bound following the Great War, is incapable of giving Crowther the thrashing he thinks he deserves; his wife Eva is terrified of the dead man and obviously has some secret to hide, trying to avoid the man who is constantly bothering her; the family nurse, in charge of young June Christensen, loathed the man and makes no bones about declaring this; Eva’s sister Norah has also suffered the man’s attentions, much to the disgust of young Jerry, who’s obviously smitten. And then there is Crowther’s dodgy butler and the strange Italian who was living in his house. The Challoners will have to do plenty of globe-trotting and digging into the pasts of all the characters before coming to a dramatic solution, and an entertaining journey it is!

That is often the real tragedy of a case like this. The whole of our civilization is one network of little intrigues, some harmless, others serious, all going on in the dark just under the surface. A crime calls the attention of the community to one point, and the searchlight of public interest is switched on to this particular section of the network. The trouble is that the light does not fall upon one spot alone, but shows up all the surrounding knots and tangles, making them out of all proportion by their proximity of the murder.

I thoroughly enjoyed “The White Cottage Mystery”, although I must be honest and say it probably isn’t Allingham’s strongest work. Not only was it her first detective story, but also it had to work within the restrictions of a newspaper serial which presumably entailed keeping it simple. Nevertheless, there’s much to love about the book; the plot is clever and watching the Challoners attempt to solve it is very entertaining. They suspect person after person only to have to dismiss them, and there are a number of very satisfying red herrings and sub plots. For a slim book, there’s a lot of twists and turns and as well as murder there’s blackmail and cruelty and burglary and hardened criminals and the French secret service and international gangs! The settings range from Kent to Paris and the south of France, and the pace never lags.

As for the solution – well, there *is* one despite the apparent inability of anyone to have committed the crime, and W.T. does solve the mystery although all is not revealed until some time later. I confess I did at one point consider the killer as a possibility but I dismissed it, so it just goes to show that you should never underestimate a Golden Age crime writer.

So a worthy additional to Allingham’s canon, an entertaining and enjoyable distraction from heavier books, and definitely worth the £1 I spent on it. I seem to be amassing quite a few Campion titles and although I’d prefer, being a bit pedantic about such things, to read them in order of publication I don’t think that’s going to happen. Instead, I think I shall just pick up whichever ones I happen to come across on my travels as they’re certainly an ideal palate cleanser and a wonderful escape from the horrors of the modern world. 🙂

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