RogerBW's Blog

More Work for the Undertaker, Margery Allingham 09 April 2017

1948 classic English detective fiction; thirteenth of Allingham's novels of Albert Campion. The decaying Palinodes are lodging in what used to be the family house, but one of them seems to have been poisoned; what is the neighbouring undertaker up to; and why is a delirious crook terrified of "going up Apron Street"?

This is a strange, thick, claggy book, clearly a descendant of Police at the Funeral and to some extent Coroner's Pidgin. It's full of characters, many of whom are known by several different names; I think they're meant to be whimsical and amusing, but they come over to me more as obnoxious and pathetic. I never felt any particular sympathy with them, or cared much whether their problems were resolved. They all talk in a ponderous way, with many particular terms that form a family mini-language; this is realistic, and explained so that the reader can decode it, but it still makes the book harder going.

"Now, take A Joy for Ever, or Creative Evolution, or Civilisation and Its Discontents, aren't all those absurd titles if taken as literally as you are taking How to Live on One-and-Six? Of course they are! It occurred to me at the time because I was most anxious to know how to live on a very small sum. It's all very well to have an intellect and to entertain it, but one must first ensure that one can maintain the machine."

Meanwhile, the undertaker (Lugg's brother-in-law) clearly has something crooked going on, but what is not at all obvious… unless, as I did, you immediately guessed it, and spent most of the book waiting for the detectives to catch up. This is not meant as boast: I certainly didn't solve the main case, and a better deducer than I might still be thrown by not knowing a certain period detail which is entirely alien to the modern reader. The problem is that, when the reader is very far ahead of the detectives in a story, the detectives come over as stupid, not seeing evidence that's laid plainly in front of them… which the reader is meant to notice on a second reading!

He was getting over his fright and reasserting himself. The difference between this story and the last was subtle but inescapable. There was now none of the carefree ease of improvisation. Campion felt he was probably telling some sort of version of the truth.

There's not much of the ongoing tale of Campion here: he's been offered the colonial governorship of an island somewhere, which he's dubious about accepting, and there's a short letter from his wife right at the end. Ah well; I am greedy for the greater narrative arc. This story does effectively show off the early days of the post-war malaise in Britain, of people who have worked out that they can't go back to their old way of life, but haven't yet got any idea of what might come next.

One new character is Charlie Luke, a young police inspector who's the son of an old friend of Stanislaus Oates – who was present in Campion's earliest cases, and is presented here as most definitely getting on a bit. Luke is an energetic fellow, and makes a good complement to a Campion who's perhaps a bit less physical than he used to be.

There's good stuff here, but one has to do a lot of wading to get there; I certainly wouldn't recommend starting the series here. Followed by The Tiger in the Smoke.

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Previous in series: Coroner's Pidgin | Series: Albert Campion | Next in series: The Tiger in the Smoke

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