Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Margery Allingham’s “gentleman detective” Albert Campion doesn’t get nearly as much popular “press” as do his contemporaries Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey. But Allingham’s work was influential in shaping the genre, so it’s more than fitting to include one of her novels in this feature. Today, let’s turn the spotlight on The Crime at Black Dudley, the first of her Albert Campion novels.
As the novel begins, a house party has just gathered at Black Dudley, the remote old home of young academician Wyatt Petrie, who’s recently taken the property over from his uncle Gordon Coombe. The house has been in the family for hundreds of years, but currently, Petrie and Coombe are the only residents. Besides Albert Campion, this house-party consists of a group of friends of Petrie’s, including Dr. George Abbershaw. Also present are some business acquaintances of Coombe’s. On the first night at dinner, we learn that Abbershaw has become infatuated with another guest Margaret “Meggie” Oliphant. In fact that’s his main reason for attending the party. He even has a vague sense of foreboding that the week-end won’t go well, but since Meggie Oliphant will be there, Abbershaw attends.
After dinner on that first night, the guests move into the drawing room, where their attention is soon caught by a dagger on display above the fireplace. Wyatt Petrie hints that there is a legend about the dagger and he’s persuaded to tell it. According to Petrie, the dagger would glow with red when it was touched by a person who had committed murder. Later, the family developed a sort of ritual with the dagger; the ritual involved turning the lights down and passing the dagger around in the dark, with the aim being to avoid being the last one caught with the dagger. As you might expect, the guests decide to play the game themselves and Petrie is persuaded. The lights are turned off and the game begins. Abbershaw tires of the game, though and eventually goes to bed. He is settling in for the night when he’s interrupted by a fellow guest. He gets the news that Colonel Coombe has died of heart failure and he is asked to sign off on the death certificate. It seems odd to him to rush matters so much but he agrees to go and look at the body. When he does, he gets his first suspicion that the death was not natural. Abbershaw begins to believe that Coombe might have actually been stabbed in the back with the Black Dudley Dagger.
Then the next morning comes another startling revelation. One of Coombe’s business acquaintances Benjamin Dawlish claims to be missing “something important” and demands its return. In fact, he and his two associates refuse to let anyone leave until their property is returned. Abbershaw has deduced that these “associates” are actually the members of a criminal gang with whom Coombe had been working. Now they’re holding the group hostage until their property (which turns out to be a set of papers) is returned. At first, Abbershaw concludes that one of the gang has murdered Coombe. But then he discovers that he’s wrong. Now Abbershaw will need to find out the truth and help the others outwit the gang if they’re going to escape.
For that, Abbershaw gets help from Campion who, as it turns out, was paid to pick up the papers from Coombe and deliver them elsewhere. On the surface, Campion seems vague and even a little idiotic; however as we find out, he’s easy to misjudge and in the end, he plays an important role in finding out the truth about the criminal gang, the papers and the murder.
One of the interesting things about this novel is that although it does introduce Campion, he isn’t the one who really solves the crime. In fact, Abbershaw puts the pieces together. However we get an interesting “first look” at Campion. On the surface, he’s foolish, perhaps even stupid, and certainly not very engaging company. But he’s got quite a few skills as we find throughout the novel. We don’t learn much about Campion, but it’s easy to see how Allingham thought he might be developed more.
Another important element is the atmosphere. This story is set in a remote older home, so the setting is eerie:
“In the centre of this desolation, standing in a thousand acres of its own land, was the mansion, Black Dudley; a great grey building, bare and ugly as a fortress. No creepers hid its nakedness, and the long narrow windows were dark-curtained and uninviting….
However bleak and forbidding was Black Dudley’s exterior, the rooms within were none the less magnificent. Even here there were the same signs of neglect that were so evident in the Park, but there was also a certain dusty majesty about the dark-panelled walls with the oil-paintings hanging in their fast-blackening frames, and in the heavy, dark oak furniture, elaborately carved and utterly devoid of polish, that was very impressive and pleasing.”
Those who enjoy “country house” mysteries will really enjoy this particular setting. There are secret passages and cupboards and all sorts of staircases.
The mystery itself is believable in the sense that when we find out who killed Coombe and why, the murderer, motive and method fit in. That said, though, there is a very important piece of information that isn’t given to the reader until nearly the end of the book although you could argue that there is a hint just a bit earlier. Those who like clues to the murderer to be placed throughout the novel will be disappointed in that aspect of this story.
In many ways, The Crime at Black Dudley is what you might almost call a “period piece” from 1929, when it was published. The speech patterns, manners, dress, customs and even cars of the era are reflected in the novel and bring that time period alive. However, also brought alive are the “-isms” of the day. There is more than one offensive reference to one or another ethnic/national group. To be fair, the character of Meggie Oliphant is depicted as intelligent and certainly neither clingy nor helpless. Still, there are several dated references to the female characters (who are nearly always called “the girls”), and they certainly don’t play strong, important roles in the novel.
The Crime at Black Dudley is a clear example of the Golden Age “country house” mystery where a group of people are drawn together by murder in a remote home. As such, and if one looks at it as a “period piece,” it’s an interesting piece of crime fiction. And those who like the “remote country house” atmosphere will truly enjoy the creepy Black Dudley setting. But what’s your view? Have you read The Crime at Black Dudley? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 20 February/Tuesday 21 February – The Darkening Field – William Ryan
Monday 27 February/Tuesday 28 February – A Trace of Smoke – Rebecca Cantrell
Monday 5 March/Tuesday 6 March – Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow – Peter Høeg