Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Book Review - Margery Allingham's The Crime at Black Dudley

The Crime at Black Dudley (Albert Campion Book 1) by Margery Allingham
Published by: Felony and Mayhem
Publication Date: 1929
Format: Paperback, 256 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy

George Abbershaw is indebted to his friend Wyatt Petrie. Wyatt is having a large house party at his remote ancestral pile Black Dudley and to help out George he has invited Meggie Oliphant. George is a man of science, being a pathologist, and he has decided that his new feelings that have arisen for Meggie must be tested out at close quarters to determine if it is infatuation or love. Infatuation can run it's course and for the most part be ignored, but love, well, love is another thing. At dinner, sitting next to Meggie, they gossip about the strange array of people gathered. From Wyatt's invalid Uncle Colonel Coombe who lives year round at Black Dudley, to Benjamin Dawlish, a man with the hair of Beethoven and an implacable manner, to the foolish society fop, Albert Campion, who no one remembers inviting. The group seems so diverse, it's almost as if they were all brought there for a reason.

After dinner in the great hall, the guests eyes alight on a sinister dagger rather ostentatiously displayed over one of the fireplaces. Wyatt tells of a family legend of death and tragedy, that imbued the dagger with the power to bleed if it was held by a killer. In later generations, this has devolved into a ritual, a game of hide and seek where the dagger is passed back and forth among the guests in a darkened house, the one left with the dagger being the "killer." The guests are eager to take part in this ritual and soon the house is darkened and the "game" begins. Abbershaw views the game as insipid and uses the opportunity to go outside and check on his car, were he runs into Campion. The two amiably chat and return to the house together, where something is most definitely wrong.

Colonel Coombe has had a heart attack and been taken upstairs. Soon Abbershaw learns that Coombe is dead and is asked to hastily sign a cremation order. Abbershaw, very suspicious, gets a quick look at Coombe and decides that the man has most definitely been murdered. Though Coombe's thuggish friends, led by Dawlish, make it quite clear to Abbershaw, that not signing the cremation order is not an option. Something sinister is at Black Dudley. Come morning, all the guests realize they are captives. Dawlish has lost something of value and no one leaves until it is returned. If his item is returned, will he let everyone go though?

It is interesting to me that this is considered the first Albert Campion book seeing as, while a memorable character, he is by no means the star, that task is left to the too upright and altruistic Doctor Abbershaw. In fairness, The Crime at Black Dudley's blurb did warn me that Albert Campion is "in a supporting role, for the first and last time." I just thought he'd have a bigger part... apparently we have Allingham's American publisher to thank for Campion taking center stage. Originally she wanted to have Abbershaw be the star of her new mystery series. All I have to say to that is snooze fest. Campion is far more interesting in that he has flexible morals, but more importantly, was created to make fun of Lord Peter Wimsey. And right now, anyone taking the piss out of Dorothy L. Sayers gets two big thumbs up from me.

Personally, I can't decide yet as to whether I'll like Campion... he was too peripheral and there were just too many characters running around and mucking things up that I had to juggle. There really has to be some way to find the perfect balance of number of characters to narrative. But then there's authors like George R. R. Martin who are juggling so many they need an exhaustive appendix, yet I can keep them all straight, then there's The Crime at Black Dudley, where some of the characters are forgettable even to others in the book. I mean Martin is actually described as "just a stray young man" with black hair! How am I to remember anything about Martin with this vague description thrown in amongst all the the guests and thugs wandering around this house with impossible and improbable secret passageways and staircases and old areas that were part of the monastery? How I ask you? Also, throw in three characters with W's for names, Wyatt, Watt, and Whitby, add three doctors, and three ladies and I didn't care enough to keep track of who was who. Never mind that the ending was out of left field with no hints, by the end I didn't care, I was just glad it was over.

The main reason I disliked The Crime at Black Dudley was the mysterious organized crime element. Organized crime to me just doesn't feel British enough to my bones. While I know that's absurd, when I get a country house murder, I expect something more Gosford Park and less John Gotti. Sure, organized crime can be interesting... there was a time in my life I found it very interesting. Yet, with the hulking and stone-faced Dawlish as the "head" of the organization I was left cold. He didn't seem to have any intelligence or ingeniousness to lead a world wide crime syndicate. Also he seemed rather hesitant to kill. I'm sorry, but at the point where you've got tons of people locked up, and over half a million pounds on the line, just start killing them to get what you want. Leaving them alive gives them opportunity to escape... which of course, from the heroes point of view is felicitous, but unrealistic in my mind. Perhaps it's my dislike of the stolid Abbershaw that is making me see things through the eyes of the criminals... but really, kill them, be done with it.

Reading this fresh on the heels of Allingham's wonderful The White Cottage Mystery, I was struck by a similarity between the two. When I read Carola Dunn's first Daisy Dalrymble book, Death at Wentwater Court, it struck me as interesting that she let the criminal go free. I thought that this was an interesting twist on the mysteries of the 20s. Little did I know that Margery Allingham was also very fluid in the punishment meted out on criminals. Allingham definitely has a scale she uses to judge the guilty, and sometimes the scale does not point "go to jail, go directly to jail, do not pass go, do not collect $20." While I find it refreshing... two books in a row, well... it was repetative. Also, if at this point you're thinking, dammit, she's spoiled the book for me... remember the killer comes out of left field, so, no I didn't. I wasn't able to guess the killer and neither will you, the punishment is immaterial in this case.


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