The White Cottage Mystery by Margery Allingham

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This book is the first story produced by Allingham featuring a detective, W.T. Challoner. It was actually compiled from a series which first appeared in the Daily Express in 1927. This is therefore not Allingham’s famous “sort of a detective”, Campion, but an older man, whose vast understanding of human nature means he can solve crimes that puzzle others.

The original format of the serial means that the chapters of this novel are very short, and the murder mystery is not complex as each chapter was not meant to be read closely following on from the previous one. Despite this, the crime is still singular in its gory detail and domestic setting. The suspects are more or less ticked off, before a shift of scene means that foreign travel and a whole new set of suspicious circumstances must be delved into by the two sleuths. The fortuitous arrival of Challoner’s son Jerry at the murder scene means that Challoner has a Watson to explain his thinking to, as well as a younger man to do some of the running around. Jerry’s solving of the crime is compromised by his affection for a suspect (as announced on the back cover of this edition), but does give rise to an interesting question unusual in this sort of investigation novel, as to whether the crime can be justified when it soon emerges that the victim is a very nasty person. This level of complexity in an otherwise standard murder mystery makes for a more interesting read than some classic reprints of the era. Allingham’s later development of Campion and his associates is not the classic murder mystery duly solved and murderer punished, if only because Campion is only a well -connected, amateur detective.  Her best known novel, Tiger in the Smoke, questions the nature of an evil person, and I think that this thinking is beginning to be seen in this early novel.

Overall, this is not a complex subtle novel in many ways, but a satisfying short read. The characters are interesting and well developed in a very clever, brief manner. This is not a great murder mystery, but as an early example of Allingham’s writings I found it very interesting and a sign of great things to come.

This is a very brief review as I confront the problem of how to write about a murder mystery without introducing the dreaded spoilers! This may be a book for those who want the complete set of Allingham’s mystery books, and Bloomsbury have filled a gap as well as providing a book for those who want a fairly brief read without discovering the delights of the rather more complex Campion, well brought to life by Peter Davison in the tv series of 1989…

Campion: The Complete Collection [1989] [DVD]



The Oaken Heart by Margery Allingham

If you have read previous posts on this blog, you will have noticed that I have an interest in life in Britain during the Second World War. I have picked out some of the Persephone titles which reflect the experiences of women such as Winifred Peck, as well as Furrowed Middlebrow’s offerings of fascinating memoirs like Chelsea Concerto. I have long enjoyed the books of Margery Allingham as her unusual hero Albert Campion solves mysteries in a wartime setting as well as introducing the foggy “Tiger in the Smoke”. So I was interested to track down a copy of The Oaken Heart  being  “The story of an English Village at War”. It is available to order from bookshops in a lovely edition by Golden Duck publishers, which look to be a small Essex business.

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This is an unusual book in two ways; it is an unusual book for Allingham, who is known mainly for her murder mystery books, notably featuring Albert Campion. It is also unusual as a book in that it is almost a real time record of one village’s experiences of daily life in the Second World War. There is one suggestion that it was originally written for the American market, not just to earn its author money, but also to help with the effort to persuade the U.S. public to join in the war effort. The narrative ends in February 1941 when it was far from clear how the war would progress yet alone end, and there is a sense of controlled fear that everything and everyone is still very unsafe. Invasion of this country by enemy forces was still, after all, a very real possibility.

The author was living in a large house in an Essex village in 1939, and the stories and experiences reflect the lives of those around her as war looked increasingly likely, people were evacuated to the village from London, the outbreak of war and the departure of men and women into the Forces. There is a small railway, a school, shops and all the small businesses and concerns linked to a mid century British village. There are characters who behave well in adversity, and the general tone is of resigned acceptance of the imminence of destruction, whether personal, local or national. Thus there is the urgency of gas mask distribution, the preparations for evacuated schoolchildren who turn out to be mothers and children, and the reality of bombs falling in the area if not immediately on the village itself. There are the daily practical concerns of a large influx of people who need not only housing but also feeding and clothing. Book manuscripts must be hidden in biscuit tins, windows taped up and a place for London couples to argue provided. A straw shelter from bombs is built but is most used for cattle over winter. Various elderly people adopt a fatalism which means that they do not seek shelter; and the dropping of flares and incendiaries provide firework type entertainment.

This book is an account of life by a woman dealing with unprecedented experiences; her daily life and the departure of her husband and others to fight. It is reality finely drawn, as the foreword says “And The Oaken Heart    reflects her truthfulness on every page”. It is not a smooth, highly planned narrative, yet it is not a diary in the sense that it contains reflections on this war and those whose lives are being threatened and transformed by its progress. There are funny tales of the determination of one man to build a glass topped extension, but not to hit the last nail in as that is when it is bound to be destroyed. This is no bland ‘Britain can take it’ propaganda as it is too honest; it reflects the real fear as well as the determination to survive and flourish.

It perhaps feels wrong to say I enjoyed this book as there is an element of suffering and fear present. It is an eminently readable narrative, fascinating in its eye for detail and its honesty, when much of the writing about this time almost romanticises the romance of peril. This is the story of a woman who has to visit a bomb scarred London and misses buildings no longer standing, and also who confronts the potential ending of everything. It is also well written and personal, as she recalls and records the strange events and personalities that make up the village around her. The Golden Duck edition that Blackwells tracked down for me contains a short diary and other information, pictures and photographs which all add to the reality. If you have an interest in the Home Front in Britain I would definitely recommend this book.