Thursday, 29 July 1999

Margery Allingham: The White Cottage Mystery (1928)

Edition: Penguin, 1990
Review number: 300

Margery Allingham's first novel, written as a newspaper serial and edited into a continuous narrative by her sister, comes before she had conceived of the character of Albert Campion. The White Cottage Mystery is a fairly gentle murder mystery, though I suspect its eventual conclusion may have come as something of a shock to the original readers. (Allingham's novels often have a streak of unconventionality, someone who transgresses the bounds of normal behaviour, though this is more obvious in this story.)

It will be rather difficult to discuss the themes of the book without giving away the ending; I will just set up the situation in this paragraph, and then you should stop reading if you don't want to know the outcome. (Read the book instead!) Moments after a shot rings out, the body of neighbour Eric Crowther is discovered in the White Cottage. The investigating police quickly discover that Crowther was an extremely unpleasant man, a blackmailing bully. Everyone in the house at the time had a good reason to kill him, but it becomes clear that it was physically impossible for any of them to have performed the deed.

To see where the police go wrong, you need to keep a pretty close eye on the movements in the White Cottage that day. While ruling out the adults, the investigators do not even consider the possibility that a child could have shot Crowther. In the days of the James Bulger killing, we are perhaps not so likely to overlook a five year old, though the way that this book is written naturally aims to lead us to do so. That killing was supposedly committed by boys of twelve, influenced by adult videos (I say supposedly because in the week that I read The White Cottage Mystery, the trial of the two boys was reopened).

An age of twelve years is very different from one of five, and any doubts as to how much the two boys can be considered responsible for their actions are re-doubled for a girl less than half their age. I believe that even in the case of the older children they didn't expect the outcome of their actions to be what it was, because of the way that the video they were copying had influenced them. In The White Cottage Mystery, the little girl's nurse imparts a belief that Crowther is in fact Satan, and that is why she shot him when the chance offered. In effect, the little girl is as blameless as the gun itself; she is a weapon used by the nurse.

Being used unwittingly to commit this sort of crime is of course a form of child abuse, and Allingham is also modern enough to realise the effect this could have on a child. In the last chapter, we see Joan again, though now at the age of twelve. She is obviously affected by the memory of shooting a bad man, but protects herself by believing it to have been a dream. This belief is one in which those who know her - some of who guess the truth - encourage her. Her lack of understanding at the younger age is another reason why she can easily believe this.

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