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by Marjery Allingham
Felony & Mayhem, June 2006
256 pages
ISBN: 193339742X

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

A nice middle-class doctor gets invited to an old school friend's family home for a weekend and finds an assorted guest list, including several very peculiar gentlemen. When the friend's ill uncle dies suddenly - and suspiciously - the doctor attempts to make sense out of the many plots and counter-plots that seem to be swirling below the genteel surface of the slightly odd gathering. And when a very important piece of paper goes missing, several people do quite unexpected - and deadly - things, resulting in a definitely ill-mannered experience for all the weekend participants.

This first Campion adventure may seem rather disjointed, nearly disconcerting, for those who have come to know the elegant and initially pellucid sleuth who is actually not named Albert Campion but has chosen to call himself thus for family reasons. The book is Allingham's first attempt at a full-length detective story-cum-thriller, and works very well in and for the style of the period, although it may seem rather fantastical to modern readers. Many incredible things happen and several participants appear larger than life, far more powerful and nearly omnipotent, plus the quirk on which the resolution hangs is downright silly, but a great deal of fun nonetheless. Not at all believable, though, practically, and many of the motivations and behaviors of the characters may seem downright bizarre and overly restrictive to those accustomed to current mores.

Despite her use of the pathologist/doctor as her main protagonist, Allingham did not aim to make this a forensic mystery in the style of Doctor Thorndyke - it was intended, I believe, as social satire, and succeeds rather well at it. In his first appearance, Campion plays second fiddle to the good doctor who is, himself, rather bland and tentative, but the two balance very nicely in the Holmes/Watson manner. Luckily for both Allingham and her readers (not to mention dear Albert), she quickly came to realize that the strength of the series rested upon the unlikely and loose-limbed shoulders of the surprisingly stalwart Mr. Campion, and focused almost exclusively upon him in most of her remaining mystery novels. Here he's mainly the second-string silly idiot deluxe who nonetheless manages to orchestrate the solution to the crime and the escape from the dire situations the cast of characters has gotten themselves into. And he is extremely likable all the way through, not easy given the circumstances, which are quite dire at times.

While mainly a charming, almost light-hearted thriller 1920s style, Allingham also gives us some dark edges which bring into sharp relief the generally vapid and/or silly lifestyles of her Very Important People. She's not quite up to scalpel level yet, but her piercings of wit and wits push what might have been a turgid and oh-so-familiar plot along very nicely. And her characters are wonderful, if rather stock, but I think their familiarity was deliberate, meant to allow the reader to settle in to a comfortable read, so that when the shocking bits showed up the reader would be thrilled and surprised. Nowadays the majority of the splendid plot twists and bad behaviors seem very tame, but the writing is still elegant, the setting and plot rather fun, and the charming Albert a very nice person to know. Especially if one finds ones' self caught in a drafty old manor house with a group of very odd persons one hasn't met previously, trapped for a weekend in increasingly violent and despairing situations.

Allingham's first Campion story is not at all believable, but is very enjoyable, and undoubtedly a dry run for a true Classic, her second novel, MYSTERY MILE, which has a similar plot that comes across far better. THE CRIME AT BLACK DUDLEY is a lovely time-capsule curiosity, a nice way to spend an afternoon; MYSTERY MILE is truly thrilling. And I definitely recommend not only any of Allingham's books, but also the four tv films made in 1989 and 1990 starring Peter Davison as Campion - they're simply brilliant.

Reviewed by Abbey Hamilton, January 2010

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