The Crime at Black Dudley by Margery Allingham
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Reminders of the first lines of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House underpin the opening of Margery Allingham’s small and wonderful 1929 mystery novel The Crime at Black Dudley: “The view from the narrow window was dreary and inexpressively lonely. Miles of neglected park-land stretched in an unbroken plain to the horizon and the sea beyond. On all sides it was the same.” It is quite an opening paragraph, one that primes the setting and prepares the reader for deadly doings. An aura of dread — perhaps even death — is skillfully captured.
In her opening chapter, Allingham creates a sense of impending disaster and doom. She introduces her cast and setting by way of a dinner party (a device that has since been so commonly used to the point of seeming trite). A disparate roster of guests assemble at “Black Dudley, a great grey building, bare and ugly as a fortress….” One guest, George Abbershaw, is respected by Scotland Yard and of particular importance due to his book on pathology which “treated with special reference to fatal wounds and the means of ascertaining the probable causes….” Through Abbershaw, Allingham prepares her readers for such wounds as they may appear (and, assuredly, they will).
Abbershaw’s love interest explains to him the identities of most of the principal players at the table, including Albert Campion, a party crasher adept at solving mysteries and questioning suspects. Although Campion is described as “quite inoffensive, just a silly ass,” Abbershaw ponders the name but “his memory will not serve him.” With these intriguing introductions, the stage is set.
Naturally, a suspicious death occurs, which may or may not be murder but must be for the novel to work. All seems fairly settled until a rather strange turn of events unfolds, which seemingly maroons everyone in this ugly house on a lonely plain with no means of escape and no telephone. Abbershaw recognizes early that the bad guys are part of an international gang of criminals who function much like a corporate hierarchy, with specialists in various nefarious skills. As we have seen in modern times, the CEO / mastermind is often isolated by layers of bureaucracy and only the underlings get caught and punished. Even more difficulties and revelations occur, and Allingham works them out in a manner that remains new and fresh even nearly a century after her mystery’s first publication. She raised the bar for detective stories; The Crime at Black Dudley is a compelling and modern crime novel dressed in the mores and costumes of the 1920s.
Despite the seriousness of investigating a murder, there is considerable humor in the situations and the reactions of the characters. Albert Campion is a frequent originator of that humor, whether with a piquant comment or some sleight of hand (Campion would later appear in a number of Allingham’s subsequent mysteries). At one point, referring to a theft of £500,000, Campion says, “Half a crown here, half a crown there, you know. It soon tells up.” While the comment makes light of the enormity of the crooks’ potential loss, it underscores the difficulty the guests are in. For modern readers of a certain age, it foreshadows a remark about federal spending attributed to Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen: “A billion here, a billion there and it soon adds up to real money.”
Margery Allingham (1904–1966) published her first novel, Blackkerchief Dick, at age 19 and went on to publish steadily throughout her life. Her contemporary, Agatha Christie, wrote that Allingham “stands out like a shining light.” Her groundbreaking Albert Campion series began with the present volume in 1929, which has recently been reprinted in trade paperback by Bloomsbury along with additional Campion novels.