How to Relax on Saturday Night: Margery Allingham’s The White Cottage Mystery

allingham TheWhiteCottageMystery

There are “do’s” and “don’t’s” for Saturday night.

Do: Listen to the Grateful Dead.  What can be mellower than “Box of Rain?”

Don’t:  Watch the original Star Trek.  Popular with SF geeks, Trekkies who dress up like Klingons, and recovering addicts in rehab, it is almost too exciting “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

Do:  Read a Golden Age Detective mystery of the 1920s, ’30s, or ’40s.  There is something soothing about a murder investigation,  especially with a discerning English detective at the helm.  The brilliant detective interviews people and finds clues, but all violence is off the page.  There are cottages, manors, London flats, fens, helpful butlers…and other elements that make it relaxing.

I recently spent a Saturday night immersed in Margery Allingham’s first detective novel, The White Cottage Mystery, published in 1927. Allingham, one of the Golden Age Detective Fiction writers of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, is best known for her wonderful Albert Campion detective series.  (Now I must reread them.)  The White Cottage Mystery was recently reissued as an e -book by Bloomsbury Reader.

NPG x2396; Margery Louise Allingham by Howard Coster

Margery Allingham

Allingham has a gift for writing natural dialogue and inventing unsolvable plots (at least I never solve them).  This entertaining, fast-paced book opens with a young man, Jerry, offering a lift to a beautiful young woman who has alighted from a bus.

“God bless you!  It’s about a half mile down this road, and I’ve such a blister on my heel!”

He drops her off at a house called White Cottage.  He stops a little way down the road to put the hood up on his convertible and smoke a cigarette. He borrows a match from a constable and they chat.  Minutes later, a screaming parlourmaid runs down the road.  There has been a murder at White Cottage.  A neighbor, Mr. Eric Crowther, has been shot and killed in the dining room.

Jerry’s father happens to be Inspector W. T. Challoner of the Yard, and it is he who investigates the murder.  It is baffling, because everyone is a suspect, and everyone denies having seen the crime.  In spite of  Jerry’s protests, W. T. insists on questioning everybody, including the girl Jerry gave a lift to, Norah.  She is the sister of Mrs. Grace Christensen, whose husband, Roger, a war veteran in a wheelchair, owns White Cottage.

Everybody has a motive.   That’s the problem.  Mr. Crowther has tortured everybody with his  knowledge of their pasts, and threatened to tell their secrets.  Everybody says he was a devil who deserved to be dead.  He visited Joan almost every day, despite her wishes to the contrary, and the sense is that he harassed her. She found the body but says she was in the garden with her daughter before the shot, but the little girl says she was at the other end of the garden.   Estah, the child’s nurse, says she wishes she had killed Crowther herself, because he was the devil.  As you can imagine, his servants didn’t like him, either:  Crowther’s valet, Clarry Gale, is an ex-convict with a special hatred of him; and Mr. Cellini, Crowther’s Italian companion, has disappeared.

Penguin-4616 Allingham White Cottage MysteryAllingham  explores the ethics of a murder investigation.  They track one of the suspects to France, and when they meet up with Joan and Norah there, W. T. says there is no choice bu tto investigate them further.  Jerry is upset:  he wants his father to leave Norah alone and asks, “What does it matter who killed him?”

‘Jerry,’ he said, ‘in our business one must never be afraid to know the truth. You want me to throw up this case –a thing I could never do for my own self-respect’s sake –because you’re afraid to face what you believe to be true. You believe Mrs Christensen fired that shot –don’t interrupt me –I repeat you believe she murdered Eric Crowther, and you’re afraid to prove it. That’s no good, my boy –a doubt is always dangerous. For her sake as well as for everyone else’s we’ve got to find out all we can….’

Jerry sighed. ‘Then you won’t give up.’

A fascinating philosophical discussion.  Who is right?  W. D. or Jerry?  There is a very weird ending, utterly unexpected.

What a stunning little book!  I absolutely loved it.