Monday, September 5, 2011

Book Review: Margery Allingham’s The Crime at Black Dudley

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.


  1. Nice review -- I've never heard of Allingham before (shamefully!) but I'm curious about this Campion character (especially since you say he really is a character!). I might pass on this one and pick up another book in the series -- although I'm a lazy enough mystery reader that I never try to solve it.

  2. I read this one after reading a later Campion (and being less intrigued than I wanted to be!) People told me that the books get better later in the series, so I might try again!

    I'm glad you want to read The House of the Seven Gables with us!

  3. I could have sworn that I had read this one...but this doesn't sound at all familiar. May have to try it again.

    Got you updated on the progress site.

  4. What a lovely review! I think I enjoyed your take on the book more than I would the actual work itself. Forgive me for saying that you lovely critique of the book and the development of the characters reminded me of a game of simple game of Cluedo (a.k.a. Clue in America)- or maybe even one of those old radio serials with sound effects. looking forward to following you as you work through the rest of your R.I.P. challenge!

  5. I read my first Agatha Christie this summer and my biggest complaint was there was no chance for me, as the reader, to solve the mystery. Maybe that's how they were written back then. I'm not sure this one appeals to me.

  6. I'm sorry to hear that the story was a bit disjointed in parts. I've been meaning to read some Campion ever since watching the series of movies made from Allingham's books. Really love those and especially want to go read the two or three which feature the girl who becomes his love interest. I still need to track those down.

  7. Had no idea this was the first Campion. Would like to read it though the Allingham I read recently: Police at the Funeral wasn't all that great.

  8. New author for me as well. Sound interesting too.

  9. @Audra -- My understanding is that you don't need this one to understand the Campion series, so that might be a good idea.

    @Audrey -- I have ordered Seven Gables from the library. I am hoping to participate!

    @Bev -- I think that there are two books called the "first" Campion novel. Maybe that's the mix up?

  10. @Bear -- thanks for the kind words. Clue is exactly right. But a game of clue where everyone is guessing Ms. Peacock, so you have no idea where Col. Mustard is!

    @Kathy -- You maybe right. In this one, you get a whole bunch of information at the end that you would have needed to establish any kind of motive. If that annoys you (and it does annoy me) it's probably not a great fit.

  11. @Carl V. -- I have never seen the movies, but am going to try and find them now! I'm so looking forward to this year's R.I.P. Challenge. I'm planning a ghostly theme for the rest of my entries!

    @neer -- I'm definitely getting mixed signals on Allingham's work, but would definitely try another Campion novel.

    @Mystica -- definitely worth a try!

  12. I read all of the Campions (one after the other in order) and non-Campion Allinghams some time back , and I loved them. The Campions, especially, because they're such an awesome snapshot of a time gone by. Not all of them are great, but I did love the Black Dudley.

    And then I bought all of the series dvds I could find and watched them one after the other as well. I'm so happy to see your review!

  13. I don't read a lot of mysteries, so I probably won't rush out and read this, but still enjoyed your review.

  14. Ooh, I have this book! I think... I have at least two Margery Allingham books and I feel this is one of them, as people seem to really like Campion as a character. But sometimes the vintage mysteries just don't work for me because of the pretty blatant classism that exists, which can be hard for me to stomach. But some of them are so good that I just continue to soldier through!

  15. My husband reads pretty much exclusively mysteries, and particularly loves the vintage variety. I have to see if he's read these.

    I am sort of hopeless at solving the mystery, so I tend to stick with the cozy variety, where the point is more the characters than the mystery itself.


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