Written by Margery Allingham — The best thing about CrimeFictionLover’s Classics in September is that it encourages readers to step out of their comfort zones and sample some of the greats from the past. It also has a tendency of highlighting huge gaps in your crime fiction knowledge.
Until now, Margery Allingham was a closed book to me… no pun! My research shows that she is the creator of the Albert Campion series, which is familiar to me via the TV series which featured Peter Davison. However, The White Cottage Mystery is the first Allingham story I’ve sampled. None other than Dame Agatha Christie herself said that Margery Allingham’s work ‘stands out like a shining light’, so I consider my wrist slapped for this oversight!
The author’s debut detective story, The White Cottage Mystery was serialised in the Daily Express in 1927 and you can imagine those newspaper readers waiting with bated breath for each instalment. As a complete book it moves along at a cracking pace, each revelation coming as a hammer blow when it arrives.
It all begins in innocuous fashion, when a young man stops his sports car to offer assistance to a young lady who is obviously struggling to carry her heavy basket. A little act of kindness on Jerry Challoner’s behalf turns into something more sinister just moments after he leaves his passenger at her gate. Suddenly the rural peace of Campington is shattered, shots are fired and a man is killed. Who better to discover the murderer than Detective Chief Inspector WT Challoner of the Yard… who just so happens to be Jerry’s father?
This is Golden Age mystery writing at its finest, with an intriguing, chameleon-like hero and a huge cast of possible suspects, all of whom hated the dead man and all of whom make no bones about welcoming his demise. But who was the much-despised Eric Crowther of The Dene? WT needs all of his considerable powers of detection to piece together the man’s story – and what he discovers doesn’t make for easy reading. The dead man seemed to delight in upsetting people.
The action moves to the South of France as WT and Jerry pursue their prime suspect across the channel, but strangely they encounter some familiar faces on their trip. Jerry is thrilled to meet Norah Bayliss again – he’s been smitten with the girl since helping with her basket – but her sister, Eve Christensen, is there too and looking decidedly chipper for someone who discovered a dead body in her parlour. Then there’s the sudden appearance of Crowther’s manservant, William Lacy, who is better known to WT as habitual criminal Clarry Gale. The plot thickens…
Allingham demonstrates great skill as a master plotter and all of her characters, be they minor or major players, fair leap off the page. Favourite among them is the wonderful WT, sternly incisive and sweetly grandfatherly by turn, he is a man of many facets and the heart and soul of the novel. Among the large supporting cast, Clarry Gale stands out as a sharply drawn petty crook. His style of speaking in particular is inspired and inside my head I could imagine him uttering every syllable.
No Golden Age mystery is complete without the great reveal but in The White Cottage Mystery it is a little different. No huge gathering for this author, instead she almost tiptoes by and drops a bombshell that leaves the unwary reader reeling. To use the parlance of the period, this is a ripping good read!
CFL Rating: 5 Stars