A review of The Crime at Black Dudley by Margery Allingham
This was Margery Allingham’s first book to feature her amateur sleuth, Albert Campion, published in 1929. Also known as The Black Dudley Murder in the United States, it is a rather odd book, at least structurally.
It begins as a conventional country house murder mystery, set at the ugly and sinister Black Dudley. At the invitation of Wyatt Petrie a group of disparate guests have assembled for the weekend to amuse his invalid uncle, Colonel Coombe. There is a Cluedo-like theme running through this book. Among the guests are a distinguished Scotland Yard pathologist, George Abbershaw, his love interest, Margaret Oliphant, a rather keen, gung-ho rugger blue, a young doctor, a couple of sinister guests invited specifically by Coombe, and a silly ass by the name of Campion. In our first encounter with Campion, he even outdoes Wimsey in his asinine behaviour.
The guests are persuaded to replicate the old Black Dudley Knife ritual, a glorified game of pass the parcel, albeit with a knife and with the lights out. Inevitably, there is a tragedy, Combe is found slumped in his wheelchair and taken up to his room and pronounced dead. The doctors are prevailed upon to put the cause of death as a heart attack, even though Abbershaw is convinced that Coombe had been stabbed by the Black Dudley knife. The body is whisked away for a quick cremation.
While the lights are out, Campion has relieved Coombe of a vital set of documents and as he hopes to slip away is detained by Abbershaw. Abbershaw then finds the papers and destroys them, not realising their import. Coombe’s two sinister friends are anxious to get their hands on the papers and much of the book concerns itself with their detention of the guests, the search for the documents, and the guests’ attempts to escape. Campion, despite his inanities, proves invaluable.
As you might expect in Allingham’s world, Black Dudley is the focal point of two gangs of international criminals who are anxious to get their hands on Coombe’s plans for an audacious and major bullion raid. Campion, it emerges, is in the employ of the other gang and has accepted a mission which was larger than he anticipated.
The murder of Coombe and the identity of the murderer are two rather thin wafers placed around the meatier shenanigans involving the battle between the criminals and the rest of the guests. Once that is resolved, Campion leaves the narrative and has no hand in unmasking the culprit. This is left to Abbershaw and, indeed, the whole book is written from the perspective of the worthy medic.
It is quite apparent that the demise of Coombe is as much as a surprise to the criminal gang as most of the guests and the suspicions fall on one of guests, but who and why? The who is fairly self-evident. The why is an interesting form of retribution and natural justice, which even the most diligent reader would not have the clues to realise. Given the time spent on the enforced captivity of the guests and the attempts to escape, the murder aspects fell somewhat rushed and the resolution unsatisfactory.
In summary, it seemed to me neither one thing nor the other, neither an amusing country house thriller-cum-caper à la Buchan or Wallace nor a murder story. The attempts to blend the two did not sit well with me, even though it was an entertaining enough read. Had I read this as my introduction to Campion, I might not have read many more of the series. What saves it is that it is easy to read and imbued with a sense of humour.
Campion comes across as a man of mystery, a complex blend of inanity and intelligence, a man for hire. Allingham seems to be road-testing him, not quite sure in which direction to take him. Of course, we know but her contemporary readers would not, making it a rather dangerous strategy.