“Perhaps I ought to give you some little idea of my profession. I live, like all intelligent people, by my wits, and although I have often done things that mother wouldn’t like, I have remembered her parting words and have never been vulgar. To cut it short, in fact, I do almost anything within reason—for a reasonable sum, but nothing sordid or vulgar—quite definitely nothing vulgar.”
I wonder what the readers of 1929 made of Albert Campion. The now-iconic detective debuted in The Crime at Black Dudley as a scene-stealing supporting character. Campion could have ended up as one-note comic relief, a victim, or even the killer.
Happily, he springs to life here almost fully formed, grinning vacuously and making dumb remarks over the barrel of a revolver. “It isn’t that he stops fooling and becomes serious,” marvels Dr. George Abbershaw, “he’s fooling the whole time, all right—he is a fool, in fact.”
Too many Campion novels waste him on vaguely described international intrigues and spy plots when he should be properly detecting. This is very much in that mold. Our alleged hero, the lovelorn Dr. Abbershaw, finds himself a guest at a very strange house party. There’s a group of jolly, interachangeable youths, some sinister-looking men, and their host Colonel Coombe, who wears a mask to hide facial scars from World War I.
Like all houses Campion visits, the castle of Black Dudley has an arcane ritual associated with it. In this case, the house is plunged into darkness while everyone passes a dagger around. Whoever is left holding the dagger at the end of twenty minutes…I don’t know. It’s not a very well-thought-out ritual.
It comes as no surprise when Colonel Coombe gets stabbed to death for real during the game. His associate Benjamin Dawlish insists that Abbershaw certify the death as natural so he can cremate the body immediately. Abbershaw is shocked to discover that, under the mask, the Colonel’s face is unmarked.
For a while, it appears that Black Dudley is a pure thriller rather than any kind of detective story. Supervillains take potshots at the guests, trapdoors and secret passages are deployed, etc. But eventually Campion and Abbershaw begin to wonder why the murder occurred when it did. Is it possible there are two unrelated crimes taking place at the castle?
Aside from Campion, who is wonderful, I have no tolerance for this kind of hectic ‘20s thriller. But it’s impossible to totally dislike a book in which a young man, facing certain death, plaintively insists that if the head of an international criminal conspiracy “thinks he can imprison nine respectable citizens for an indefinite period on the coast of Suffolk without getting himself into serious trouble, he’s barmy, that’s all there is to it. What’s going to happen when inquiries start being made?” There’ll always be an England.
The Crime at Black Dudley is a clear example of the Golden Age “country house” mystery where a group of people are drawn together by murder in a remote home. As such, and if one looks at it as a “period piece,” it’s an interesting piece of crime fiction. And those who like the “remote country house” atmosphere will truly enjoy the creepy Black Dudley setting.