Blackkerchief Dick (1923) – Margery Allingham
Margery Allingham was, along with Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, one who revolutionized the mystery genre by essentially creating the now classic British mystery style. She’s the one who has survived the least to the modern era. Agatha Christie remains beloved and probably always will; Dorothy Sayers is a tier below Agatha Christie, but still remains popular. Margery Allingham is rarely mentioned anymore. I decided to begin reading her novels to see what I thought about her. This novel was her very first and it isn’t a mystery. It is the story of Mersea Island, an Island off the coast of Britain, and the various smugglers and pirates who use it as a haven during the late 1700s. It is a richly sketched story and Allingham has a real strength for dialogue. She writes uneducated pirates, ambitious young people struggling to rise above poverty and upper class Englishmen equally well; they all seem absolutely real. And then there’s the beautiful atmosphere of the novel which feels absolutely real and true. I found myself absolutely transported to this wonderful, mysterious old island. The characters are pretty great; even the characters with the smallest roles feel surprisingly genuine. In the titular character, a foppish, yet cruel, ship captain, she creates a compelling, surprisingly sympathetic villain. This book isn’t very easy to find; too bad – it’s pretty darn good.
The White Cottage Mystery (1928) – Margery Allingham
This slim volume is around a hundred and fifty pages and is Margery Allingham’s second novel and her first foray into the mystery genre, which would dominate her career from this point forward. This story was originally published as a serialized story and for many years Allingham refused to have it published in book form, due, she said, to the fact that it contained many repetitious sections that were necessary for a serial, but would only be annoying for the reader of the novel. After her death, the story was gone through by one of her heirs and all repetitions were deleted. The story is completely standard. A man is found murdered in the White Cottage, a large house in the country. It seems, once the police arrive, that just about everyone in the house had a motive for the murder. The detectives are a father and son team which is something you don’t see very often, but so little is made of their relationship that it’s pretty well not important at all. Two things are worthy of mention. One is the incredibly brisk prose. There’s hardly a description in the book; the story consists almost entirely of dialogue, which is either refreshing or annoying, depending on your perspective. As someone who enjoyed the atmosphere of the setting Allingham was able to conjure in Blackerchief Dick, I found it to be a huge step backwards and very disappointing. The second thing is that I actually figured out the identity of the killer, two chapters before it was revealed. In other words, Allingham played fair with the clues; good for her and good for me. This isn’t essential or anything; it’s mostly a throw-away book that you won’t really remember anything about once you’ve finished it. Read it if you’re an Allingham completest; otherwise, it’s unnecessary.
The Crime at Black Dudley (1929) – Margery Allingham
The Crime at Black Dudley, published in the US as The Black Dudley Murder, was Allingham’s third novel and her second mystery. The main character is a chubby Scotland Yard consultant/physician, named George Abbershaw, who finds himself enmeshed in a series of strange occurrences during a weekend house party at the rambling mansion known as Black Dudley. Allingham was most famous for her series of books about rakish jack of all trades Albert Campion. She introduces him in this novel as a supporting character. Even in a small role, he’s a great, surprising character, a foppish, prissy, abrasive, ugly young man who just happens to be incredibly intelligent and skilled at getting out of scrapes. He overpowers the novel, frankly; compared to him, Abbershaw, the main character, seems dull and uninteresting. It strikes me that Allingham didn’t intend to write a series about him, but, in the way that Hercule Poirot did to Agatha Christie, he’s more compelling than she expected him to be and basically muscled his way into the main character role in a continuing series by sheer force of his weirdness. As to how this book works, it isn’t so great; the middle section, after the murder, when Black Dudley is taken over by a gang of criminals who hold the other characters hostage, is pretty creative and interesting. Likewise, the prose here, after the incredibly disappointing prose in The White Cottage Mystery, is back up to snuff; it isn’t luminously beautiful, but she at least takes time to describe characters, setting and action with more care and depth than she did last time. The book is enjoyable enough, but the solution is a classic cheat; Abbershaw gets some information that he doesn’t share with the reader, which isn’t quite fair play. If we had everything Abbershaw had, we could solve it, but Allingham hides the pivotal clue from us. Enjoyable enough, with a disappointing ending.
An Advancement of Learning (1971) – Reginald Hill
The second book in the Dalziel & Pascoe series and, if anything, it’s even better than A Clubbable Woman, the first book in the series. Hill has stated that he never intended to make Dalziel & Pascoe a series and he only reused them here because he didn’t want to have to create two new detectives for this mystery. Surprisingly, given this, both the characters are integrated perfectly in this tale of a mysterious skeleton discovered on a university campus. Both the detectives are given serious character dilemmas. Dalziel, an uneducated, vulgar, anti-intellectual man, feels distinctly out of his element and even more hostile toward the people that he has to deal with in this case than he usually does. Pascoe, meanwhile, is forced to confront both an old flame and his decision to leave the academic life for the police force, questioning if he wouldn’t have been happier in the ivory tower than he is in the mean streets. The mystery is, as in A Clubbable Woman, a good one, with plenty of twists and Hill’s prose is distinctly above average for the genre. It’ll scratch the itch for those looking for genre thrills and also those looking for a novel that is both literary and readable.
True Valor (2002) – Dee Henderson
This one, wait for it . . . wait for it . . ., has nothing do with the wondrous O’Malley clan. It’s a tale of the military and I have to say, though it’s the second book in the Uncommon Heroes series, it functions as a standalone. I hadn’t read the first book in the series and I don’t feel like I missed anything. That said, while I wouldn’t exactly recommend either of them, the O’Malley series has a definite spark that this one was missing. I think Henderson enjoys the O’Malleys at least. This seemed more workmanlike; all of the same flaws, but . . . well, yeah, unbelievable but true: this book made me wish I was reading an O’Malley book instead.