More Work for the Undertaker (Margery Allingham)

By Margery Allingham

First published: UK, Heinemann, 1948

Blurb (UK)

Allingham - More Work for the Undertaker.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

An exhumation order had been granted and the Palinode poisoning mystery was already making headlines when Albert Campion sat in the park beside the Chief of the C.I.D. and considered so thoughtfully the old lady in the cardboard hat who solved crossword puzzles in Latin in the sun.

The Chief was quietly determined.  “It’s a fascinating business,” he said.  “Bound to be a classic of its kind.  They’re such difficult, interesting, erudite people.  You know who they are, don’t you?”

Mr. Campion tried not to hear.  He was thinking of a country warning, “One crow – Tremble, Two crows – Strangers, Three crows – A Summons No Wise Man Ignores,” and reflecting that temptations were swooping round him like black birds.  Already he had refused two old friends and shut his eyes to two coincidences, for he was on the threshold of the greatest decision of his life.  An important appointment awaited him overseas and Mr. Lugg, his old friend and knave, was composing an advertisement for the Situations Wanted column.

Campion left the Chief and refused to be captured by the two young people whose behaviour made him so curious but…the Undertaker’s letter arrived by the last post.

It is too long since we had a first-class mystery of Miss Allingham’s peculiar quality.  Here it comes – a story for “the connoisseur of detective fiction”.

My review

‘If you hear any thumping it’s just the undertaker.’

‘The ultimate reassurance, said Campion.

One of the best Allinghams in the fantastical vein.  The setting is an obscure London street unchanged since the Victorian periodThe eccentric Palinode family, who have a penchant for talking like a cryptic crossword, run a strange boarding house.

Faced with these impractical geniuses, Campion “felt that, intellectually speaking, he was having a conversation with someone at the other end of a circular tunnel, and was in fact standing directly back to back with her. On the other hand, of course, it was possible that he had become Alice in Wonderland.” The effect is the same on the reader, who steps into a world where the unusual is commonplace, and where everything normal is twisted out of recognition into some new mathematical perversion, so that he, like Alice, finds himself stepping through the door—and ending up back where he started, utterly confused—a maze, amazed.

London suburbia is transformed into something rich and strange; sordid gangsters use bizarrely symbolic means to escape the law; violent and lawless men rise from coffins, the Christ parallel intertwined with professional criminals typical of the book’s unpredictability.  The whole culminates in a surreal chase of a coffin brake through London by police squad cars—reality has crashed into the mad world of the Palinodes.

The solution is, perhaps, cluttered; the villain successfully carries out his professional criminal activities, but bungles his amateur murders.  The criminal’s desire to “stop the clock”, however,  suits his innate conservatism.  And the method hinges on a Victorian custom, old habits, like the victims, dying hard.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (12th February 1949):

As usual, Miss Allingham has created an original setting for a variety of interesting personalities.  Mr. Campion, now in his forties, is preparing to leave England for an oversea appointment of some importance when he observes in the park one day an old lady in a cardboard hat solving crossword puzzles in Latin, and becomes involved in the Palinode poisoning mystery.  A possible criticism is that the introduction of so many different characters tends to slow down the plot.


New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 26th March 1949):

The trio of ladies suffer from specifically feminine complaints besides the ills that all detective flesh seems heir to.  For Miss Allingham and Miss Fitt stocks and shares are the source of the trouble.  Ignorance about the workings of the Stock Exchange may be no disgrace to womanhood, but it cannot be allowed to justify patent absurdities.  Miss Allingham, for instance, implies that a block of shares can be bought for £5 in the market and yet be worth a fortune to a murderer.  The motive in More Work for the Undertaker depends on this financial jiggery-pokery for its validity.  Miss Fitt apparently fancies that a share can slump in the middle of the night without anyone knowing about it.  There is a dramatic moment in The Banquet Ceases when Sir Matthew, at 10 p.m., learns that he has just lost several thousand on ’Change.  One is reminded of Ouida’s wonderful boat-race, when “all the crew moved fast, but none as fast as stroke”.  Josephine Bell is afflicted with hypertrophy of the maternal instinct.  The pages of Death in Clairvoyance are littered to excess with the charm of children; and she even ropes the little ones in for a game of detection on their own.

The plots of these three books merit no more than cursory notice.  In More Work for the Undertaker Miss Palinode, a member of one of the oddest families ever envisaged, is exhumed and found to have been poisoned.  The motive, as I have said before, is invalid, so I advise the reader to concentrate on how the poison got inside her.  If Albert Campion (whose hair has become silvered in the service of his country and of Miss Allingham) had bothered to do that, he would never have had to cut his way to a solution for 300 pages through a jungle of inconsequence.  Death in Clairvoyance means, alas! what it says.  A clairvoyant lady foresees a murder at a masked ball an hour or so before it actually occurs; and makes another call on her paranormal faculty to help David Wintringham solve the case.  Precognition (whether Miss Bell likes to believe in it or not) is about as useful an adjunct to detection as cheating is to card games.  If she tries it on again, she will be able to see another discouraging review coming towards her.  The Banquet Ceases, with its extravagant picture of high life among the high financiers, is readable enough.  Miss Fitt can be relied on for some lively characters and some startling events – the most startling being reserved for the finale, when a deathbed confession divulges that Superintendent Mallett and the reader have solved the case all wrong.