I love Margery Allingham’s books, as you can tell from what I’ve written about her before. Yet I’d never read The White Cottage Mystery, her very first detective story. It’s hardly a scarce title, as there was a Penguin edition but it’s been reissued by Bloomsbury with a lovely cover similar to those of the British Library Crime Classics. I read it courtesy of NetGalley. It was first published by The Daily Express in 1927 and features the elderly (according to the author) detective, Challoner, and his son Jerry.
A man who is universally loathed as ‘a devil’ is found murdered in The White Cottage, home to a neighbouring family. Young Jerry coincidentally happens to be on the scene and his father is called in to deal with the case. It’s a tricky one because so many people had a good motive for murdering Crowther and several of them were around White Cottage at the time of the crime. Plus, Jerry is falling in love with one of the suspects and won’t hear a word against her. Challoner soon realises that most of those involved are frightened and are lying to him. The question is: why? The conclusion he eventually comes to is very unusual and for the first time in his career, he abandons a case.
This novel was written very early in Allingham’s career and is nothing like as good as her Campion stories. Yet already she shows the talent for characterisation and the feeling for place which make the Campion stories so successful. It may be considered a minor work in her canon, but for me it’s far better than some of the detective novels being reissued as ‘neglected masterpieces’. She was, quite simply, a far better writer than some of those authors who have been quite justifiably forgotten until now. I felt an Allingham re-read coming on and have started with The Fashion in Shrouds (1938). My old Penguin copy has brown pages and is falling apart, but I’m gripped by the story already.