I seem to have been commenting all over the place recently about the wonderfulness of Margery Allingham and which are my favourites of her books. One of these is More Work for the Undertaker, published in 1948. Mr Campion, now in his forties and, like everyone else, tired after years of war, thinks his detecting days are behind him. He is about to accept, rather reluctantly, a prestigious overseas post suited to his rank when fate intervenes. His long-term sidekick, Magersfontein Lugg, receives a request for help from his unloved brother-in-law Jas. Bowels, an undertaker in Apron Street, W3. At the same time, former collaborators at Scotland Yard request his cooperation in an unusual case. Campion is unwilling until he feels that old, familiar trickling down the spine and can’t resist the excitement of another case.
The small district around Apron Street was once grand and is now down at heel and fly-blown. At one time the neighbourhood revolved around the Palinode family at Portminster Lodge. There are two mysteries. Who had a motive for poisoning Miss Ruth Palinode? Why does the expression ‘going up Apron Street’ terrify certain criminals? The surviving Palinode brother and two sisters are now dirt poor and living as tenants in what was once their own house. They remain clever and arrogant and mystify the police by their habit of speaking almost entirely in quotations, allusions and a private family language. Luckily for the police, Campion is able to interpret.
The post-war London atmosphere is brilliantly captured in this book. Every character is fully realised, down to the charlady at the Lodge. All of eighty and still brimful of what it takes. Works like a navvy, too. Can’t stop in case she falls down dead.. She has the deaf cockney habit of repeating what she says: I done me floor. I say I done me floor. The best character is a new one, DDI Charlie Luke, ‘thirty-four or five at the most, sensationally young for his rank.’ Seated on the edge of the table, his hands in his pockets, his hat over his eyes, his muscles spoiling the shape of his civilian coat, he might well have been a gangster. The man absolutely crackles with energy and this is brilliantly conveyed throughout the book. He read, as he did everything else, with a great deal of action. The type-written sheets of blue paper vibrated like live things in his hands, and when they flapped over were as wild as washing on a line. We’re even given a succinct insight into his background: I had a crush on the teacher when I was at school and my nature book was on the hot side, lovely lined-in drawings. “Yes, Miss, I have worked hard … Thank you, Miss … You ain’t half got a thin blouse on, Miss …” Henbane, yes I know, little yellow flower. Awful stink. We see a lot more of Luke in The Tiger in the Smoke.
The solution to the Apron Street mystery is macabre in the extreme and the description of the final chase (I won’t give more away) thrillingly atmospheric. I hope that’s whetted a few appetites! There’s a list of Margery Allingham’s books here.
Although it was a re-read I could hardly put this book down until I’d finished. I then turned back to Georgette Heyer but alas! Much as I enjoyed the books I’d already read, Miss Allingham had spoiled me for lesser writers for a while.