It’s the late 1940s. Apron Street in London is an aging little neighborhood, with its bank, its chemist shop (drug store), its attorney’s office, its funeral home, and other businesses. And at one end sits Portminster Lodge, the ancestral home of the Palinode family. The home, like the street and the neighborhood, has seen better times. It’s now owned by a retired dance hall actress who operates it as a boardinghouse. Members of the aging Palinode family still occupy a few rooms, and still act as if time stopped 50 years earlier.
But two of the members of the family have died, under suspicious circumstances. The body of one is finally exhumed, and it’s discovered she was poisoned. Private detective Albert Campion, at the request of the police and his old friend the retired dance-hall actress, moves in to see if he can determine what’s happening.
Campion discovers all kinds of unusual things happening – strange goings-on at the funeral home, unusual activities by the boardinghouse residents, an unexpected visit by a high government official asking campion to ignore one aspect of the investigation, a young man getting attacked, people watching each other in the streets in the dark hours of early morning. The detective’s own butler and jack-of-all-trades Magersfontein Lugg is slipped a Mickey Finn in his drink by his brother-in-law, the proprietor of the funeral parlor.
In More Work for the Undertaker by Golden Age mystery writer Margery Allingham (1904-1966), Campion has to sift through all the different strands to determine not only what is happening but whether or not the strands are even connected.
In one sense, More Work for the Undertaker, first published in 1948, is classic Allingham. A decaying old family, her famous detective Albert Campion, a significant role for his manservant Lugg (one of the most original characters ever created in mystery fiction), an almost convoluted mystery, a spot of romance – these are all characteristics of Allingham’s novel written from the 1920s to the 1960s.
In another sense, however, this one also has something akin to the magical, complicated plots of British writer (and Inkling with C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien) Charles Williams (1886-1945), almost as if Allingham had just read The Greater Trumps or All Hallow’s Eve right before she wrote her story. Her plot is complex, and it needs a close reading to follow everything that is happening.
The manservant Lugg, however, as is often does, almost steals the show. His language, his knowledge of criminal activity and villains (based on his own past), and his ability to see right through pretense serves Campion well in his own investigations.
More Work for the Undertaker is one of Allingham’s more challenging reads but well worth the effort.
Top photograph: a London street in the 1940s, similar to the fictional Apron Street in the story.