Series: Campion #1
Published by Bloomsbury on May 6th 2014
Genres: British mystery, Cozy Mystery, Historical Mystery
The Black Dudley is an ancient, remote mansion inhabited by the reclusive Colonel Combe, but owned by Wyatt Petrie, a young academic who decides to revive his property with a weekend party to which he invites his friends and colleagues. Among the guests is George Abbershaw, a renowned doctor and pathologist who is occasionally summoned by Scotland Yard to help with consulting mysterious deaths. Abbershaw hopes that the leisurely weekend at Black Dudley will help him to get acquainted with red-haired Meggie Oliphant whom he quietly admires. Little does he suspect that instead he will be involved in a series of extraordinary and dangerous incidents which unravel one by one in the gloomy mansion and split the party.
It all begins with a seemingly innocent ritual-game, played in Black Dudley for generations, in which a jewelled dagger is passed between the guests in the darkness. The young visitors are intrigued and eager to play, but when the lights are restored it becomes apparent that Colonel Combe has fallen ill. In the commotion of helping the invalid gentleman to his bedroom the dagger disappears and the Colonel is soon pronounced dead. Although Colonel's closest friends claim that he suffered from a weak heart for many years, Abbershaw begins to suspect that there is more to his death. Soon the guests realise that the petrol has been drained from every single car and the party is imprisoned within the manor of Black Dudley with a murderer among them. Luckily for Abbershaw, among the guests is Albert Campion – a garrulous and affable party-crasher with a great knack for solving mysteries and interrogating suspects.
The Crime at Black Dudley, first published in 1929, is the first novel which introduces Margery Allingham's amiable sleuth – Albert Campion.
The Crime at Black Dudley introduces Margery Allingham’s affable, deceptively foolish young amateur detective, Albert Campion. Like Lord Peter Wimsey, Campion is from an aristocratic family and adopts a silly-ass, never-serious persona. Unlike Wimsey, however, Campion himself is a bit of a mystery. We know very little of him – even his real identity. Campion is just one of his many aliases, at least one of which is mentioned in this book. There are hints in other books that he may be a legitimate or illegitimate scion of one of England’s most respected noble families, perhaps even the extended Royal family, but we never find out for certain. This lends a little soupcon of the unknowable to the detective himself, and adds to the fun of the books.
The Crime at Black Dudley is not, however, among the best of Allingham’s books. For one thing, Campion is not the main character; Dr. Abbershaw is, and I don’t find him as interesting as Campion himself.
In typical Allingham fashion, the plot is convoluted and somewhat fantastic (in the “elaborate and not quite real” sense of the word), but it works a little less well here than in some of the other books (Mystery Mile, for instance.) Criminal gangs headed by ruthless masterminds, a murder with a famous dagger during a house party – it reads like a pastiche of Ngaio Marsh (A Man Lay Dead), Agatha Christie, and a sensational pulp-crime novel, but Allingham’s distinctive narrative voice manages to tie it together. Eccentricity and the fantastical are hallmarks of Allingham’s mysteries; it seems to me that in The Crime at Black Dudley she was just beginning to feel her way toward her mature style.
I’m never totally satisfied when the solution relies on various confessions, as is the case here, and the murder motive itself seems both far-fetched and barely tied in to the events of the main portion of the novel. All in all, I’m giving the book 3 of 5 stars – I’m glad to have read the first Campion novel, but I probably won’t reread it.
If you’ve never read any Campion mysteries, I recommend starting with any of the following, all of which I’ve enjoyed: Look to the Lady (also published as The Gyrth Chalice Mystery), Death of a Ghost, Sweet Danger, Dancers in Mourning, or the superlative Flowers for the Judge. They can be read in almost any order.
Reading this book contributed to these challenges:
- COYER Winter 2014-2015
- Cruisin' Thru the Cozies 2015