First published in May 2015
Vintage Crime Classics have just republished Margery Allingham’s first Albert Campion mystery, The Crime at Black Dudley. Published in 1929, the novel has not been printed in an English edition for over thirty years. Queen of crime Agatha Christie says that Allingham ‘stands out like a shining light’, and one cannot help but feel that her work is certainly due a resurgence.
The premise of The Crime at Black Dudley is sure to appeal to lovers of crime, particularly those with a penchant for the more old-fashioned or ‘cosy’ mysteries. In the novel, a group of London’s ‘brightest young things’ accept an invitation to the Black Dudley mansion. ‘Skulduggery is most certainly afoot, and the party-goers soon realise that they’re trapped in the secluded house’. Albert Campion, one of the trapped, is on hand to assist the others in unravelling ‘the villainous plots behind their incarceration’.
The way in which Allingham describes the house adds a feeling of foreboding almost immediately. She writes that, ‘Miles of neglected park-land stretched in an unbroken plain to the horizon and the sea beyond… In the centre of this desolation, standing in a thousand acres of its own land, was the mansion, Black Dudley; a great grey building, bare and ugly as a fortress’.
The novel opens with the character of Dr George Abbershaw, a ‘minor celebrity’, who soon becomes one of the story’s protagonists. Whilst on holiday at Black Dudley, ‘Much to his own surprise and perplexity, he had fallen in love’ with a young woman named Margaret Oliphant. The weekend is being hosted by the owner of the house, Colonel Gordon Coombe, ‘an old invalid who liked the society of young people so much that he persuaded his nephew to bring a houseful of young folk down to the gloomy old mansion at least half a dozen times a year’.
Centuries past at Black Dudley, a murder was committed with the house’s revered Dagger, which is still kept in pride of place. It is this ritual of sorts which is recreated by the characters on the first night. Of this act, Campion says, ‘”All this running about in the dark with daggers doesn’t seem to me healthy”‘, thus creating fissures within the body of the protagonists. Further peculiar goings-on such as this soon ensue, and serve to both deepen the mystery and add texture to the plot.
One of the main points comes at the instance in which Colonel Coombe dies after a supposed heart attack. Questions about the situation being ‘fishy’ are almost immediately raised by many of the guests. As a doctor, Abbershaw goes to view the body under the guise of signing the cremation certificate. After doing so, ‘The fussy, pompous personality that he had assumed dropped from him like a cloak, and he became at once alert and purposeful. There were many things that puzzled him, but of one thing he was perfectly certain. Colonel Gordon Coombe had not died of heart disease’. Moreover, Abbershaw becomes ‘convinced that there were more secrets in Black Dudley that night than the old house had ever known. Secrets that would be dangerous if they were too suddenly brought to light’.
Throughout, Allingham is both witty and amusing, whilst being rather to the point. Of Abbershaw’s falling in love, for example, she writes the following: ‘He recognised the symptoms at once and made no attempt at self-deception, but with his usual methodical thoroughness set himself to remove the disturbing emotion by one or other of the only two methods known to mankind – disillusionment or marriage’. The perceptions which Allingham gives of her characters too are very shrewd: ‘The man was an arresting type. He was white-haired, very small and delicately made… Under the sleek white hair which waved straight back from a high forehead his face was grey, vivacious, and peculiarly wicked’. The author is also a master at piecing together places and scenes, and second to none at building moments of tension or shifting experiences in just a single sentence: ‘The house-party which had seemed as large round the dinner-table now looked amazingly small in this cathedral of a room’.
With The Crime at Black Dudley, one has the feeling of being in the company of a very skilled writer. The plot has been well constructed to the extent that not a dull page exists within the novel, the character development is wonderful, and the dialogue is never staid or predictable. The only thing which does not quite ring true is the speed at which relationships between characters are declared; thankfully, though, such instances are few and far between. On reading The Crime at Black Dudley, it is clear to see why Agatha Christie, P.D. James, and other such writers so admire Allingham.