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The Crime at Black Dudley, Margery Allingham 12 June 2016

1929 classic English detective fiction; first of Allingham's novels of Albert Campion. George Abbershaw, expert pathologist who unexpectedly finds himself in love, goes down for the weekend to the remote country house called "Black Dudley"; but the gathering is afflicted with murder… and then taken over by gangsters. US vt The Black Dudley Murder.

It's interesting to read this soon after the rather later A Man Lay Dead, Ngaio Marsh's detection début, and to see remarkable commonalities: not merely the isolated house demanded by the form, but the party game played in the dark that's used as cover for murder.

It often feels rather busy, though, with a large cast and a surprising amount of action, as various characters drop their (fairly flimsy) covers and turn out not to have been what they appeared. There seem to be at least two lots of career criminals involved, or at least their agents, and who is that idiotic young fellow called Campion who turns out to be remarkably good in a pinch?

He was meant, in fact, to be a completely incidental character, and isn't in on the eventual solution of the mystery; Abbershaw is the protagonist here, and was intended to carry the series of books that Allingham planned to follow. But Abbershaw is a pretty conventional sort of fellow, and the American publishers (Doubleday, Doran) strongly encouraged Allingham to write more about Albert Campion instead. Which I suspect rather startled her, since he's clearly intended at least in part as a parody of Peter Wimsey, nattering nonsensically until it's time to do the exact right thing.

There is a sense of affectionate parody elsewhere too: the dashing young rugger blue's courage and fighting spirit mostly just cause trouble. There are secret passages and coded plans and a Vast Criminal Conspiracy. The women are there principally to be got out of the way when the going gets nasty (and most have no personality at all), but one of them at least turns out to have a dab hand with the odd reluctant witness.

'I never touch liquor,' she said, and hesitated again. Abbershaw was completely in the dark, but Meggie had a flash of intuition, born of long experience of Mrs Meade's prototypes.

'But as you weren't well you looked about for something to revive you?' she said. 'Of course. Why not?'

Mrs Meade's dubious expression faded.

'Of course,' she said. 'What else was I to do?'

The solution? Well, there's no evidence as to the motive, while means and opportunity are shared by everybody. About half-way through it's suggested that the gangsters don't include the murderer, but nobody seems to react particularly to having suspicion thrown among the decent chaps who've come to the party.

It's all right, but feels stylised; if I didn't know there was a solid series to come I wouldn't be especially encouraged to seek out further books. (Though now, perversely, I want to know what happened to Abbershaw and his Meggie later in life.)

'Martin,' she said, 'your mother has the most marvellous butler in the world. Plantagenet, I do believe, would pick up a blood-stained dagger in the early morning, have it cleaned, and hang it up on its proper nail, and then consider it beneath his dignity to mention so trifling a matter during the police inquiries afterwards. But believe me, that man is unique.

Followed by Mystery Mile.

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Series: Albert Campion | Next in series: Mystery Mile

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