(Woohoo! I actually got an image to work!)
It’s been several years since I read most of Margery Allingham’s novels and, having been inspired by Kate at Crossexaminingcrime’s recent forays, I decided to try a reread.
The Crime at Black Dudley is the first of her novels to feature Albert Campion – though not, perhaps, the first Campion novel, exactly, as he appears in this strictly as supporting cast, being a decidedly suspicious character but with a suggestion of Lord Peter Wimsey after a concussion or two.
The action takes place at an imposing mansion where an assorted house party gathers in the traditional GAD fashion. Our Hero is a youngish doctor, George Abbershaw: short, red-headed, round and with a craving for order which he may have swiped from Poirot. Despite his air of slight fussiness, Abbershaw is resolute and determined, as well as an old hand at criminal cases – having associations with Scotland Yard – and is the first of several characters within who are not quite what they seem. Other guests include Abbershaw’s inamorata, Meggie Oliphant; Bright Young Thing Anne Edgeware, whose character resides chiefly in her frivolous pyjamas; Michael Prenderby, a newly qualified doctor; Jeanne, his fiancee, whose part is chiefly to sob copiously throughout; Chris Kennedy, a daring young tough and Michael Watt, who, er, has dark hair. There are also two gentlemen so sinister that they probably come with their own evil theme tune: white-haired, wicked-faced, Gideon and the expressionless Dawlish, who is both foreign and fat, and therefore clearly Up to No Good. Finally, there is Albert Campion, a tow-headed, imbecilic looking young chap, who does conjuring tricks and self-confessedly acquired his mode of speech from the advertisements.
Their joint hosts are Wyatt Petrie, a notable scientist, and his uncle, Colonel Coombe, an elderly gentleman with a plate covering half of his face (presumed to be due to war injuries rather than in homage to the Phantom of the Opera). During a light-hearted game of pass the dagger – Wyatt having brought up this old family ritual after dinner – Colonel Coombe dies. Initially, this is suggested to be a heart attack but Abbershaw soon discovers that he was, in fact, stabbed. But by whom? From this point Sinister Happenings and Dastardly Deeds escalate, with a side-order of Mysterious Papers and Secret Passages and a couple of Deus Ex Machinas which are highly useful as shoehorns in tight spots.
The Crime at Black Dudley has quite a lot of absurdity to it but it’s a lot of fun too. Albert Campion is at his most light-hearted and ridiculous here (which I rather like but concede it might be off-putting to some) but with a clear competence and determination underneath: he steals the show from George Abbershaw in his scenes and it’s not surprising that Allingham chose him for her series character. While it’s neither as well-written or well-plotted as her best works, it’s also far less painful to read than, say, The Mind Readers or The China Governess.
I plan to revisit Allingham again soon.