The Crime at Black Dudley

Just about the only things I knew about Albert Campion were the title of some of his books (my parents have almost all of them), and that in the ten minutes I saw of one of the TV episodes he was very owlish looking. Margery Allingham is considered one of the classic mystery writers, however, so I knew I would read one sooner or later. And why not start at the beginning? To sweeten the deal even more, this copy of The Crime at Black Dudley is one of the green Penguin mysteries, and fit perfectly in my purse to read at the robotics competition this past weekend.

George Abbershaw is mild-mannered physician with few vices and few adventures. His only downfall is the beautiful Margaret Oliphant, so when Wyatt Petrie invites him his uncle Gordon Coombe’s country estate Black Dudley for the weekend, he begs him to make Meggie one of the party as well. [I’m sorry, doesn’t Black Dudley sound more like the name of a bar than a manor house?] The other guests are outgoing Anne, fellow doctor Michael and his timid fiance Jeanne,rugby star Chris, and a fatuous young man no one seems to know named Albert Campion. Wheelchair-bound Colonel Coombe also has two men with him for the weekend, foreigners that seem to give George the chills.

On the wall in the parlor is a jeweled dagger, a family heirloom that Wyatt tells a story about. Based on an old legend, a Ritual has been developed where people roam through the house in the dark trying to pass the dagger off to other people. Of course everyone except George wants to play this morbid version of hot potato. This is the kind of game where participants say “jolly good fun,” and the reader says “probably not such a good idea.”

During the game the Colonel has a heart attack, and his two attendants whisk him upstairs to his room. They pressure George to sign the death certificate, but the doctor is not so sure. A white-faced Meggie has already found him and told him she believes the dagger had blood on it when it was last passed to her. Now the dagger has disappeared. Has a murder taken place, and if so, why is it being covered up?

The incident seems hard to believe, until the next morning one of the German men announces that something has been taken from him, and that no one is to leave alive until it is recovered. It may have started out as a misunderstanding, but the friends have no idea of the criminal mastermind they are currently facing, and will need to pool all of their wits to escape.

I was surprised when reading this that Campion really didn’t come across as a main character; the story is told entirely from George’s perspective, and there are long stretches when Campion isn’t even present (kind of like the Fleming Stone mysteries). I wonder if Allingham decided after the fact to turn it into a series? As innocuous as Campion was, I find that I’m not entirely sure I trust or even like him, but I am interested to learn more. He comes across as both a mercenary and a hero, and yet still mostly an enigma.

I do wish people still had house parties nowadays. They sound like such fun little vacations (the ones where dead bodies don’t crop up, that is). I really think I was meant to live in a different decade. This feels like a mystery written in 1929, which I’m glad of. Not many from then are still around in print, save Agatha Christie.

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Published in: on March 10, 2012 at 1:30 pm  Leave a Comment  
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