Margery Allingham (1904-1966) published her first novel in 1923, when she was all of 19 years old. Although the novel didn’t do well financially, she continued to write and publish plays, verse and stories. And then, in 1929, she struck gold with a new detective Albert Campion, and it was Campion that rocketed his creator into the front ranks of the Golden Age of Mystery writers.
Two years before Campion’s first appearance, Allingham wrote a serialized story for the Daily Express, entitled The White Cottage Mystery. It was published in book form in 1928. It’s a complete story, but it has the feel of a serialized narrative – dramatic, cliffhanging chapter endings and sudden narrative developments that keep the reader guessing.
Jerry Chaloner is a young man with a fast sports car. Driving through a small town, he gives a pretty girl a lift; she’s walking with a limp from a blister on her foot. She lives with her sister and brother-in-law at what’s called White Cottage. The girl goes inside, and Jerry begins to talk with a passing policeman, until they hear a gunshot. They rush inside the house and discover a body with a gunshot to the chest. The victim turns out to be Eric Crowther, the next-door neighbor.
As it turns out, just about everyone has a motive, and the opportunity, to have shot Crowther. The suspects include Norah Bayliss, the young woman with the blister; Eva Christenson, Norah’s sister and mistress of White Cottage; Eva’s husband Roger, confined to a wheelchair because of a war injury; several servants at White Cottage; and even several members of Crowther’s household next-door.
As it turns out, Jerry Chaloner’s father is Detective Chief Inspector W.T. Chaloner of Scotland Yard, which Jerry announces rather breathlessly and dramatically at the end of the first chapter. And DCI Chaloner is known for catching his villains. And in this case, he will chase suspects from rural England to the French Riviera and back again.
Except this time, he might not catch his villain. By choice.
The White Cottage Mystery is a fast-paced, fun read, occasionally verging on the melodramatic but stepping back before it becomes too unbelievable. It also offers a small window into how newspapers once serialized fiction.
Top photograph by Annie Spratt via Unsplash. Used with permission.