The White Cottage Mystery by Margery Allingham

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Reviewed by Simon

Bloomsbury Reader has done an excellent job in bringing back many neglected authors (including some of my favourites, such as E.M. Delafield and Ivy Compton-Burnett), but these are often only as ebooks – so it’s a treat to be able to write about one of their paperbacks. The White Cottage Mystery by Margery Allingham is certainly styled in the same sort of package that has proven such a success with the British Library Crime Classics series – and it’s a novel that would be quite at home there.

This was Allingham’s first detective novel – originally serialised in the Daily Express in 1927, and published a year later – and, from the off, she has good command of the already-traditional structure of the whodunnit. Jerry Challenor is innocently motoring along a country lane when, as fortune would have it, he stumbles across a murder:

A girl was flying down the road towards him, her face white and terrified. She was screaming hysterically at the top of her voice:

‘Police! Police! Police! Murder!’

The red-headed policeman ran towards her, and Jerry climbed out of his car once more and hurried after him.

As he came up the girl pointed behind her.

‘It’s the White Cottage,’ she said breathlessly. ‘’E’s in there all covered a blood.’ On the last word she reeled forward, and Jerry was just in time to catch her as she collapsed.

The murder victim at the White Cottage (though actually living at a larger property next door; the cover image is remarkably accurate to the setting, which is either serendipitous or designed accordingly) is Eric Crowther. He is, of course, hated by all – from his companion to the man and wife in the White Cottage. Each has a motive; none, it seems, has quite the opportunity. It is standard fare, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Unusually for a Golden Age detective novel, I felt that it could have been a bit longer. Often they drag a little towards the end, when the reader just wants to get to the end, but Allingham is remarkably economical. It is only around 150 pages, and we have scarcely got passed the murder and the inevitable “But, my goodness, you can’t imagine I had anything to do with it!” variety of questioning before it’s time to wrap up. But brevity is certainly better than inordinate length, and it’s fun to rattle through the plot.

And what of the solving? Chief Inspector Challenor is an enjoyable enough detective, even if – on this single acquaintance with him – he doesn’t have quite the quirks and memorable traits, for good or bad, of a Poirot or (thanks heavens) Lord Peter Wimsey. But his conversations with his son Jerry, the man on the scene at the outset, lend a familial aspect to it that is always welcome – even if Jerry rather scuppers some of the solving by falling immediately in love with one of the suspects, as people were wont to do in the 1920s. The love story is, incidentally, completely unbelievable, and Allingham doesn’t seem to even bother trying to make it believable – but it scarcely matters. We don’t come to a detective novel for plausible romance.

Christie would have rolled her eyes at the process of deduction, one imagines, even given her blurb quote of ‘Margery Allingham stands out like a shining light’. A number of suspects are ruled out (at least temporarily) because of their surprise at being accused – Challenor is a big believer in instinct, it appears, and not one to consider acting or deceit to be in the murderer’s arsenal. And my taste always leans towards the domestic, rather than the dashing all over Europe that takes place. Having said all this, the solution is pretty clever, and dealt with impressively – as well as pre-empting a similar solution to an Agatha Christie novel by over 20 years. Well done, Margery!

The recent vogue for classic crime has seen rather a run on detective novelists, and perhaps enthusiasm has taken over from a strict vetting for quality – though that’s not to say there haven’t been many excellent examples. It’s about time that somebody of Allingham’s calibre properly joined the fray, and there’s no reason why The White Cottage Mystery shouldn’t become this season’s favourite rattling good yarn.

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Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors.

Margery Allingham, The White Cottage Mystery. (London, 2016). 978-1408880203, 161pp., paperback.

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