25.8.13

Margery Allingham's The Black Dudley Murder


Margery Allingham, a contemporary of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Ngaio Marsh, wrote mystery novels for 45 years. Unlike the majority of Golden Age detective writers, these four authors have remained popular for eighty years. In fact, their books are still in print today. One of the reasons they have had such an impact on readers is that they were able to convert their own experiences into rich material for their novels. Susan Rowland points out that during the course of their lives, all four women “experienced significant moments of psychological trauma. These episodes provide deeply marked turning points in their inner lives,” (Rowland 2001, 7) and a source of material for their writing.

Like Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham was a prolific writer, publishing 26 novels, 60 short stories, 4 novellas, almost 30 articles and broadcasts, and over 100 book reviews (Martin 1988, 19).

DuBose claims that Allingham has remained one of the most underrated of the Golden Age writers because her novels never fit the typical puzzle/plot type: “Her descriptive ability, her focus on character, and her interest in heavy themes meant that she could not be judged by the simple criteria of the Golden Age puzzle” (2000, 311).

Although Allingham’s work evolved into this sophisticated blend of elements, it did not begin this way. Her first detective novel, The Black Dudley Murder, is a more typical clue-puzzle mystery than any of her subsequent books. This cozy novel is set in an isolated location in the Suffolk countryside. Early in the book, the host of a weekend party at the Black Dudley country house is murdered. Dawlish and Gideon – the host’s sinister acquaintances – are initially suspected. Readers soon discover that they are associated with organized crime and that Dawlish is “the most dangerous and notorious criminal of modern times” (74).

These gangsters lock up everyone in the mansion, empty the cars of fuel, and sever the phone lines. The book combines murder, suspense, adventure, espionage, and Gothic thriller. Midway through the novel, the action takes an unexpected turn and the mystery deepens.

During this early period of her writing, “Allingham seemed uncertain whether to pursue the adventure-espionage tale or the story of a murder investigation” (Martin 1988, 19). Action and adventure are certainly key elements of the novel. The Black Dudley Murder sets the tone for Allingham’s first four “adventure” stories (Mystery Mile, Look to the Lady, Sweet Danger), in which “a violent death occurs on the periphery of the action, while the main business of those concerned is to retain or gain possession of a precious object” (Pike 1987, 9).

Woods claims that Allingham is more concerned with characterization and atmosphere than fellow writer Agatha Christie (1998, 2). In The Black Dudley Murder, the creation of atmosphere predominates. Early in the novel, the bleakness and isolation of the Black Dudley creates a somber, tense mood:
The view from the narrow window was dreary and inexpressibly lonely. . . .

In the centre of this desolation, standing in a thousand acres of its own land, was the mansion, Black Dudley; a great grey building, bare and ugly as a fortress. No creepers hid its nakedness, and the long narrow windows were dark-curtained and uninviting. (1)
As the novel progresses, there is “much coming and going by way of trapdoors, secret panels, wardrobes and chimneys” (Pike 1987, 9). The Gothic strain in this novel (see my post on the Gothic) may have been influenced by autobiographical factors. Near the end of Allingham’s life, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Rowland argues that her life
demonstrates a peculiarly intimate and painful link between the occult, psychiatric medicine and the woman writer whose mental struggles were not taken seriously enough by doctors. Her constant employment of Gothic tropes . . . can be seen as related to the profound psychic energies molding her day-to-day existence. (2001, 8)
Albert Campion, the amateur detective of Sayer’s mystery novels, is introduced as a secondary character in The Black Dudley Murder. In my post on Mystery Mile, I pointed out that Campion belongs to the eccentric, aristocratic school of amateur detectives who were popular during the Golden Age. He appears as a light-hearted, foolish character – a guise that masks his cleverness and encourages others to underestimate his ability.

Anyone who loves cozy English mysteries with plenty of action, suspense, and atmosphere will enjoy The Black Dudley Murder.

Allingham, Margery. The Black Dudley Murder. 1929. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2000.

DuBose, Martha Hailey. Women of Mystery: The Lives and Works of Notable Women Crime Novelists. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2000.

Martin, Richard. Ink in Her Blood: The Life and Crime Fiction of Margery Allingham. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1988.

Rowland, Susan. From Agatha Christie to Ruth Rendell: British Women Writers in Detective and Crime Fiction. Houndmills, UK: Palgrave, 2001.