The White Cottage Mystery was Margery Allingham’s first detective fiction and her second novel. She began her writing career with Blackerchief Dick, an historical adventure, published in 1923, when she was only nineteen. The White Cottage Mystery was serialised in the Daily Express in 1927 and published as a novel a year later. After Allingham’s death in 1966, her sister Joyce revised the work to remove recaps etc. necessary in a serial.
Margery Allingham’s work is very individual among Golden Age fiction. Unquestionably a great detective novelist when she played it straight, she sometimes blurred the boundaries between detective fiction and rollicking adventure yarns, full of high jinks and eccentric enemies. You see this now and again in Agatha Christie’s earlier novels, such as The Secret Adversary and The Big Four, which also started life as a serial. Great fun, though I prefer Allingham’s more serious cases.
Although I’ve a great affection for Allingham’s work and Mr Campion, she’s my least favourite of the GA ‘big four.’ Someone has to be and that’s only because I love Christie, Sayers and Marsh even more. Margery Allingham was a wonderful writer and in The Tiger in the Smoke, (published in 1952), gave us one of the great London novels.
The White Cottage Mystery begins in Kent before moving to Paris and the South of France. A man described as a ‘mental torturer’ is shot dead in his neighbours’ house. Naturally enough, everyone in both households turns out to have a motive for his murder. As Mr Campion didn’t make his first appearance until the next novel, the detective is Chief Inspector Challoner of the Yard, assisted by his engaging son Jerry.
In a way, both are stock characters but none the worse for that. All humans really fall into one of a few types, however little we like to think so. And pre-war detective characters had to be products of their class and upbringing. So we have the Chief Inspector, keenly observant, wise and avuncular and Jerry, a typically young, enthusiastic, would-be detective, thoroughly decent and in love with one of the suspects. His father says of him:
‘Jerry,’ he said, ‘you have a quick eye, a fertile imagination, and the gift of application, but you’ll never make a detective – you’ve no ground work.’
Although Margery Allingham’s writing invariably had a freshness and vivacity, The White Cottage Mystery feels very much like the work of a young writer. The character of the murder victim is unremittingly black, other characters and plot lack the subtlety of her later work. Even the greats had to learn their craft and there’s an enjoyable liveliness about the narrative, with red herrings galore.
It’s fascinating to read the early work of a much-loved crime writer and see the origin of later ideas. Here we have the idea of a nefarious society – no more details as I don’t want to spoil anyone’s reading – but it’s the idea expanded upon in Look To The Lady, published in 1931. We also get the first appearance of Allingham’s cheery old lags, always so vividly written and culminating in Mr. Campion’s lovable side-kick, Magersfontein Lugg. Chief Inspector Challoner too, is not unlike Inspector Stanislaus Oates of later novels.
The revised novel retains the feeling of a serial. The opening plunges into action, quickly introducing the hero and the murder. There are short, titled chapters, each giving a concise piece of the jigsaw and ending on a cliff-hanger or hook. There’s no room for musing or build-up with the finished work 157 pages. Even so, Margery Allingham inserted some lovely sentences that set the atmosphere in a line or two. This is when the action shifts to Paris:
The car turned suddenly out of a noisy thoroughfare into a quiet old-fashioned avenue where the trees, green and dusty in the heat, nodded together before tall brown houses. They came to a standstill before a house whose windows were hung with old-fashioned looped plush curtains and showed the gleam of polished mahogany in their shadowed depths.
I enjoyed re-reading The White Cottage Mystery. It’s as good as many ‘standard’ inter-war mysteries with a well-reasoned plot and inventive solution. Most impressive for a twenty-three year old author. The foundations are there though a contemporary reader probably wouldn’t have sensed that the author was going to become one of the pre-eminent crime writers of the Golden Age and beyond.