Another first for this summer: my first Albert Campion mystery. Margery Allingham’s books have been on my radar screen for a while, but Bev’s Vintage Mystery Challenge finally put one in my hands.
I decided to start with Campion’s first appearance on the literary scene, The Crime at Black Dudley. The choice here was deliberate, but debatable. Campion is a significant character* in the novel, but he is not the protagonist – some Campion enthusiasts apparently don’t count this as a Campion mystery at all. Still, I reasoned that if his cameo in one novel led to the larger gig, I wanted to see why.
The story revolves around a house party arranged by Wyatt Petrie to entertain his invalid uncle by marriage, Colonel Gordon Coombe, who is living out his last years in the family’s ancient, secluded castle, Black Dudley. Petrie arranges for a lively set of stylish young people to share the country weekend, including his friend George Abbershaw, an eminent young pathologist. The very serious Abbershaw has uncharacteristically wrangled an invitation because he is smitten with Meggie Oliphant, another member of the party. Also along is the affable and outrageous Albert Campion – who everyone assumes is someone else’s guest at the party. In addition, Petrie’s uncle has a few – very surly – friends in attendance.
So the stage is set for the lights to go out.
And right on cue, they do just that! Petrie suggests the group reenact the family ritual of the Black Dudley Dagger, a grown-up game of “Hot Potato” played with a bejeweled blade that is passed throughout the house in the pitch dark. The loser is the one left holding the dagger when the lights come on, so everyone is frantically trying to pass it.** When the lights come on, Petrie’s uncle has been whisked away – it turns out he’s been stabbed. And his surly companions want Abbershaw to sign a phony death certificate.
So who killed the uncle? And why are the surly companions threatening to kill everyone else if they can’t find a lost item? And what’s in the brief case Campion is fighting with the chauffer about? And while we’re at it, who the heck is Albert Campion? I’m not telling, but Allingham does make a very interesting thriller of it.
Unfortunately from my perspective, as clever as it all is, she doesn’t really give the reader a chance to solve the mystery. I think this may be related to the fact that she started off with one hero – Abbershaw – and ended up with two, as Campion played out his quirky, baffling part in the story’s ultimate resolution.
I liked this book, but didn’t love it. My main problem was that I found it disjointed. The members of the weekend party were unevenly developed, giving the mystery a strange slant: you couldn’t focus attention on all of the players, because there wasn’t enough information to go on. I did like the gothic elements though: the secret passages, the strange lady in the attic, the unexplained car in the garage all made for a very atmospheric read. And I definitely liked the Campion character enough to read one of Allingham’s other books.
Okay, that’s my sixth Golden Girls read for the Vintage Mystery Challenge. I’m planning to finish up with Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s The Cape Cod Mystery, which will make for seven different Golden Girls read in the challenge, six of whom were brand new to me! This has been a lot of fun, so thanks Bev! And since it’s a mystery, I’m also linking to the RIP Challenge, even though this wasn’t one of the two books I was planning. Hmmm. Maybe I can get to four after all… No, no mustn’t overcommit! But we’ll see.
*And believe me, “character” is the right word for Campion in this book. Little wonder he caught the attention of the public – and the publishers.
**This leads to a lot of running around in the dark with sharp objects, something at which all mothers reading this book will doubtless shake their heads, anticipating imminent disaster. They will be correct.