My first encounter with the crime fiction of what is known as the Golden Age came about through a friend of my parents. She had a full collection of the works of both Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh which she was willing to lend me at the rate of two a week. I was as vociferous a reader then as I am now and two a week seemed a bit parsimonious, but nevertheless I was duly grateful and over the space of a couple of years got to know the likes of Poirot, Miss Marple, Timothy and Tuppence and the redoubtable Roderick Alleyn. However, as much as my benefactor apparently enjoyed the genre it seemed that her reading had never encompassed the works of Margery Allingham and so it wasn’t until a decade later, when I moved house and found myself in the vicinity of a library which had hung onto its collection of 1920s and 30s crime fiction, that I discovered Albert Campion.
The Crime at Black Dudley is the first of Allingham’s novels about this apparent scion of British nobility, if not of royalty itself. (As far as I am aware we never actually get to know Campion’s precise antecedents.) It is also a completely new read for me, not being one of the novels that I had borrowed in that earlier exploration of the world of interwar skullduggery. And, I have to admit, that it surprised me, Campion being neither at the heart of the story, nor being the character that I thought I knew.
This earliest instalment centres round one George Abbershaw, a pathologist who works for Scotland Yard, and who has been invited by his friend, Wyatt Petrie, to be a member of a weekend house party at Petrie’s home, Black Dudley. Abbershaw is particularly pleased with the invitation because among the party is one Margaret Oliphant, the woman of his dreams. However, joy turns to horror when, on their first night, Petrie’s uncle by marriage, Colonel Coombe, is murdered and it becomes apparent that the Colonel’s associates, clearly a very bad lot indeed, are intent on covering up the killing to further their own nefarious ends. Signalling their intent to keep the members of the house party prisoner until such time as a mysterious missing package has been recovered, they show themselves to be villains of the first water, even stooping as low as to isolate and then violently question a woman.
Onto the stage steps Albert Campion, a member of the house party, despite the fact that no one really knows who invited him or what he’s doing there. As I remember Campion, albeit from around three decades ago, he always covers his serious intent with a certain about of buffoonery and bravado, but I don’t recall him as coming across as quite as fatuous as he does here. Nevertheless, it is he who saves the day, even if ultimately it is because he recognises the voice of “Old ‘Guffy’ Randell”, and is thus able to call upon the local hunt to come riding to the rescue. However, it isn’t Campion who tracks down the murderer. That falls to Abbershaw, from whose point of view the story is told and who is undoubtedly the main protagonist. Was Campion intended to be the linchpin of a series at this point? Or did Allingham invent him for this one book and then realise that she had a character with potential on her hands? I don’t know. I shall have to make sure I read the novels in chronological order and give close attention to just how he develops.
This isn’t the greatest novel ever, but it is a first class romp with all the tropes that you would expect from crime fiction of the period, including the dagger that is supposed to bleed again when the murderer touches it, the secret passages that lead to unexpected places and a withered old crone, who exemplifies the appalling class consciousness of the age. There is also, however, a really interesting discussion going on about the way in which identity can be masked, whether that is in the shape of an actual mask used to disguise a person’s real features, the use of an old chassis covering a new Rolls Royce engine or the adoption of the persona of an idiot to conceal an astute brain and, if truth be told, less than scrupulously honest intentions. I came to the book intending to read my way through the series bit by bit and, of course, I do know that the novels get stronger, but even if that had not been the case, this indication that Allingham is using the genre to explore the psychological world around her would have been sufficient to entice me further into Albert Campion’s domain.