Book Review: The Crime at Black Dudley by Margery Allingham (1929)

Margery Allingham (1904-1966) was an English crime writer known for her detective fiction featuring her character Albert Campion. She was born in London and began writing at a young age, publishing her first novel at the age of 19. Allingham wrote over 20 novels and numerous short stories throughout her career, with her most famous works featuring the gentleman detective Albert Campion, who first appeared in her 1929 novel The Crime at Black Dudley. Allingham’s writing was known for its wit, strong sense of character, and intricate plotting, and she is often regarded as one of the “Queens of Crime” alongside Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers


Dr. George Abbershow happily accepts an invitation to his friend Wyatt Petrie’s house party at his ancestral home, the Black Dudley. Dr. Abbershaw mingles with the other guests, observes the strange behavior of the servants, and is unsettled by the sinister Colonel Coombe, Wyatt Petrie’s uncle by marriage. Colonel Coombe, an invalid and wounded from the war, wears a facial prosthetic; he is entirely under the care of a private physician, Dr. Whitby, and his formidable servant, Benjamin Dawlish.

Colonel Coombe encourages his nephew to invite people to their house for parties so there is merriment and happiness, and he enjoys the dinner and pleasant atmosphere. During dinner, Wyatt Petrie recounts the history of the Black Dagger, a bejeweled artifact from the Petrie ancestors that hangs in the dining hall. He remarks that its storied and bloodied past has been mostly tamed, and now it is used in a fun party game. “The ritual,” as Petrie dramatically describes it is easy enough, the lights are turned off, and then the dagger is passed from person to person in the darkened house. Whoever has the dagger in 20 minutes when the lights go up will have to pay a small sum.

The guests enthusiastically agree to the game, and the castle is plunged into darkness. Dr. Abbershaw needs to be more interested in the game. He wanders onto the grounds and looks at the cars where Albert Campion meets him. Dr. Abbershaw and Campion exchange inanities and return to the castle together. Colonel Coombe has been taken ill, and Meggie swears that when she handled the dagger, it had blood on it.

As Dr. Abbershaw is getting ready for bed, he is visited by another guest, a young medico who has just passed his boards and was asked by Dr. Whitby and Dawlish to sign Colonel Coombe’s death certificate. The young doctor, suspicious and afraid, refused. He warns Dr. Abbershaw that Dawlish and Dr. Whitby will ask him next. After flicking the sheet back, Dr. Abbershaw is summoned to Colonel Coombe’s room and realizes he has been stabbed; he is forced into signing the death certificate and then returns to his room.

In the wee hours of the night, the household is awakened by a scuffle between Dawlish and Albert Campion, they both give flimsy excuses, and the weary guests return to their rooms. The following day, Dawlish announces that everyone is now a hostage. Their cars have been drained of petrol, and the servants from a criminal gang will interrogate the guests until a valuable object is returned to them. If the thing is not returned or they try to escape–they will be killed.

The Crime at Black Dudley soon becomes a deadly thriller as the guests explore the houses’ secret passages and dusty secrets in an attempt to escape or hide. Albert Campion is exposed to be a Confederate- he was not invited to the party by Petrie but was hired to extract the object from the house and give it to a buyer, but he doesn’t have it. Albert Campion and George Abbershaw lead a successful coup against the gang until Dawlish recaptures them in the garage. Dawlish forces everyone back to the house and then fills it with flammables to burn the house and the guests alive.

The guests escape through a stroke of luck and Campion’s good nature, and the criminal gang is put behind bars. However, the guests realize the criminal gang didn’t kill Colonel Coombes. Once back in London, Dr. Abbershaw is consumed by the unsolved death and meets with a few other guests to solve the case. They decide that Dr. Whitby must have killed and followed Colonel Coombes to his house, but Dr. Whitby clears himself. Dr. Abbershaw meets with Wyatt Petrie after following Dr. Whitby, and they solve the case together.

Book Review

There’s a lot to unpack in The Crime at Black Dudley. Firstly it’s a suspenseful thriller that a little light on character development for people other than Dr. George Abbershaw, Meggie, and Albert Campion. I liked Dr. Abbershaw; he was a seasoned, reasonable doctor who had previously worked with Scotland Yard and was brave, romantic, and curious. Initially, he reminded me a lot of Tommy Beresford (down to the red hair), and since he spent a great deal of time with Meggie, I thought they would be a crime-stopping duo. Then enters Albert Campion.

Albert Campion is a divisive character either you like his fatuous dumb humor, or you don’t. I decidedly don’t. Margery Allingham has gone on record and said Albert Campion is a parody of Lord Peter Wimsey and Bertie Wooster. He is supposed to be foppish, wealthy, and above all, a fool. This is remarked upon in the text by Dr. Abbershaw, except the actions of Albert Campion betray that he only acts as a joke, but he figures out how to maneuver through the house; he leads the successful charge against the criminal gang, he is the one that ultimately rescues the party. So the reader and Margery Allingham are stuck with an objectively irritatingly foolish man and a (probably) well-trained government operative versed in defeating large criminal operations. The enigma of Albert Campion delights some readers but not me.

Albert Campion’s unrelenting affectations and schemes ultimately wrestle the story away from Dr. Abbershaw and sideline Meggie to the beautiful love interest. Dr. Abbershaw trying to be a methodical detective, unravels the motives of the crime, but Campion steals the show. To re-assert Dr. Abbershaw as the hero, Margery Allingham writes Campion out of the final act, where Dr. Abbershaw solves who killed Colonel Coombes.

As someone not enamored with the character of Albert Campion, I must have loved the final act, right? No. I loved the straightforward detecting of clues, the amateurish following of suspects, and the mystery of it- but the solution is so bad. Who killed Colonel Coombes makes sense and is who I have suspected since the beginning. Still, the reasoning is so comically broad and bad that it made me with the criminal gang had killed Colonel Coombes, and the book ended with the guest’s thrilling escape from Black Dudley castle.

This book is a mashup of a spy thriller and a traditional detective story, which I don’t think makes a successful, cohesive story. The two stories further undermine cohesion by having two distinct and different protagonists that the reader is supposed to support. Interestingly, the mild-mannered, dogged detective Dr. Abbershaw is abandoned for the intensely irritating but supremely competent Albert Campion.

Everyone should read The Crime at Black Dudley because it is a good thriller and an introduction to Albert Campion- either you will love him and want to read his further adventures, or you will immediately know he isn’t for you and never pick up a Campion mystery again. He’s the black licorice of detectives, not for many people, but the people that love him, really love him. Those of you who have read this far and want to give The Crime at Black Dudley a shot can get the book from Amazon here.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

What do you think of The Crime at Black Dudley? Do you hate Albert Campion like me, or find him intriguing? What do you think of the two mysteries? Let me know in the comments below.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s