The rustic country mansion is a popular setting for murder mysteries – although I can only vaguely recall episodes of Murder She Wrote, the movie Clue, etc. Being naïve to this sub-genre of crime literature, I decided to pick up what appeared to be classic – the first book in the Albert Campion series of mysteries by the English writer Margery Allingham.
The Crime in the Black Dudley (1929) starts with a dinner party at a coastal Sussex manor, named the Black Dudley. Various guests, mostly young adults from distinguished society, are entertained by Wyatt Petrie and his uncle, the mysterious Colonel Gordon Coombe. Arriving late to the dinner table are the Colonel’s private doctor (he’s bound to wheelchair), a very large German, and a couple of suspicious-looking characters.
An after-dinner game of pass-the-dagger (?) ends with the death of the Colonel, first presumed to be a heart attack. One of the guests, the pathologist named Abbershaw, is called upstairs to sign a certificate permitting the Colonel’s immediate cremation. Abbershaw – the protagonist of the novel – hesitates after examining the body, but is pressured by the German and his associates.
Soon, the party is again disturbed by the announcement that the German – actually a notorious continental crime boss – is going to hold all guests inside the mansion until he recovers some missing documents. This sets up a tense, and occasionally violent, story wherein Abbershaw and other hostages devise ways to rebel against the criminals.
Abbershaw starts out as a careful and timid individual, whose romantic leanings for another guest named Meggie bring out a painful self-awareness:
Abbershaw looked at her, and noticed for the first time that there was a faintly scared expression in her narrow brown eyes, and a sudden desire to comfort her assailed him. Had he been a little less precise, a little less timid in these matters, he would probably have kissed her. As it was, he contented himself by patting her hand rather foolishly and murmuring, “Nothing to get excited about,” in a way which neither convinced her nor satisfied himself.
He’s clearly not motivated to take on the criminals until the situation gets dire. And in turn, when Meggie is under obvious threat later on, he is spurred into drastic and unwise actions. This character arc is the spine of the novel, of course, but his emotions are a open book to us – it’s not a challenge to anticipate what he’ll do next. If TCatBD enjoys status as a classic mystery, it’s certainly not due to Abbershaw.
Active resistance to the criminals is initially driven by the enigmatic Albert Campion – a quick-witted but impulsive agent, but an odd duck by many measures. From walking around at night to creeping around hidden passages of the manor, Albert is continually up to something and the other characters are mostly confounded by his recklessness. Not the protagonist, he swiftly becomes the most intriguing character, since Allingham is able to depict his motivations without directly telegraphing them.
“Yes,” he said foolishly, “I – I always get up early.”
“Amazingly early,” said Abbershaw pointedly.
“I was, this morning,” agreed Mr. Campion cheerfully, adding by way of explanation, “I’m one of those birds who can never sleep in a strange bed. And then, you know, I’m so afraid of ghosts. I didn’t see any of course,” he went on hastily, “but I said to myself as I got into bed last night, ‘Albert, this place smells of ghosts,’ and somehow I couldn’t get that idea out of my head all night. . .”
As a tale of suspense, TCatBD works well enough, although the murder mystery takes a back seat to the hostage drama. Abbershaw gets a lot of help by coincidence and talky henchmen in figuring out the criminals, and his own actions are anything but surprising. It’s easy to see why Allingham chose to go with Campion in all of the succeeding books. Let’s hope to see more intriguing criminals in the next one. 5/10.