Immediately upon finishing the Helen MacInnes, I came down with some sort of bug and ended up spending yesterday in bed. So I picked another old book off the shelf. This time it was More Work for the Undertaker by Margery Allingham. I finished it in less than two days, which either tells you how sick I was or how compelling the book is, or possibly both.
I’ve been reading Allingham at a rate of a book a year for several years now. I started off reading them chronologically (well, starting with Look to the Lady which isn’t actually the first Campion novel), but after two or three books I started reading them more or less at random as the interest took me. The last three I’ve read, therefore, have been Tiger in the Mist, Traitor’s Purse and now More Work for the Undertaker. And this chance arrangement of books has revealed to me just how weird Allingham is. I mean, these are, in a sense, straightforward detective stories: there’s a crime (usually murder), Albert Campion gets involved, there are various clues and red herrings, and in the end Campion solves the mystery. Which is about as basic a structure as you can get. Except this only tells us about the spine of the book; the flesh upon the stories is a very different matter indeed.
Tiger in the Mist seems to have a social overtone in the manner of Dorothy L. Sayers’s best novels, in this case a focus on a troop of disabled veterans busking in the fog-bound streets of London. Yet the closer we come to them, the more we see them as a bunch of psychotic criminals. There’s a sense of madness about the novel that only becomes more apparent in the other two books. In Traitor’s Purse, Campion himself is suffering amnesia, so that he can’t remember what he is investigating, what clues he has amassed so far, or even whether he is one of the good guys. It’s the sort of technical trick you get in a lot of crime fiction, like Agatha Christie telling a story in the voice of the murderer, but it also reflects a detachment from reality that is there also in the setting of the story. Because it all takes place in a small English town that has an extraordinary form of local governance that seems to make it almost completely outside the remit of the national government. There are, throughout Allingham’s work, hermetically sealed societies that seem to belong in a parallel universe: the criminal gang in Tiger in the Mist, the township in Traitor’s Purse, but before that the criminal conspiracy of Simister in Mystery Mile or the ancient rituals surround the Gyrth Chalice in Look to the Lady. In that brilliant early novel, for instance, the opening pages relate how a tramp is passed along through a series of seemingly casual encounters until he is brought face-to-face with Campion and revealed to be heir to a great name, like a journey from one world into another.
The sealed society in More Work for the Undertaker is one of the maddest and yet at the same time one of the more familiar, because the core of the weirdness is the family. We’ve seen this already in Police at the Funeral, in which the family at the centre of the story lives within its own timeframe at odds with the world around them, and this in turn breeds monstrosity. Allingham does seem to have viewed the family as in some way monstrous, even when they are on the side of the angels as the Fitton family in Sweet Danger for instance. Many of her stories turn on something familial, and I suspect that the mystery of Campion’s own family is part of this same vision.
In a sense, More Work for the Undertaker looks like a return to the territory of Police at the Funeral. There’s an old family fallen on hard times all the members of which are eccentric to say the least (dotty might be a better word for it, if not outright bonkers); Campion moves into the old house for the duration of the investigation; there’s a young girl, the family’s next generation, who is clearly innocent and whose sweet romance complicates the mystery. But in this case the mystery extends beyond the family to the local community: where Police at the Funeral opens with a plan of the Faraday family home, clearly enclosing the case within those four walls, More Work for the Undertaker opens with a plan of Apron Street, because the mystery encompasses not just Portminster Lodge but also the chemist’s the doctor’s, the bank and the undertakers across the road. This is the sealed and unreal society that is the core of this novel, so sinister that going “up Apron Street” has apparently become a dread part of criminal slang.
The oddity is in the names as well. Allingham’s novels often read as if Charles Dickens were infesting a mid-20th century crime story with his mid-19th century grotesques. Here, for instance, we meet the Palinode family, and Jas Bowels the undertaker, not to mention, of course, the familiar and magnificent presence of Magersfontein Lugg, one of the great creations in British crime fiction, whose role is to be a walking encyclopedia of the criminal underworld, and also to serve Campion as the Roman slave at the triumph whispering that he is only human. They are great characters who live up to their names, but they remain forever characters not people. Their job is not to convince us of the reality of this story, but to play a prescribed part in the pocket universe that is Allingham’s crime scene. And we don’t care about this, we don’t care how much Allingham’s fiction flirts with the supernatural or the weird, because it is the detailed marvel of the plot that keeps us reading.
And here the plot is baroque in the extreme. Allingham’s main rival in mid-century crime fiction was Dorothy L. Sayers, but Sayers used her novels to explore social issues, the shell-shocked returning from the First World War in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, the burgeoning advertising industry in Murder Must Advertise, and therefore her plots must be rooted in reality. As a crime writer she was a social realist. Allingham has no such constraints, as a crime writer she is a fantasist. So, as the plot becomes ever more complex, it is the logic of the pocket universe that holds, not the logic of reality. Here, for instance, the story ricochets between poison pen letters, shares that may or may not be worthless, an extraordinary plot to smuggle criminals out of the country, a chemist who commits suicide when asked an innocent question, a youth who is coshed when he goes to where his motorbike is garaged, a woman who seems to survive on foraged herbs and no money. There is always more, there is always another twist. Why does Lugg’s brother-in-law slip him a mickey finn? How did the writer of the poison pen letters know that the first victim had been murdered?
Thinking of the comparison between Sayers and Allingham, by the way, I assume countless theses have already been written about the way female crime writers marry their fictional creations, Sayers in the character of Harriet Vane, Allingham in the character of Amanda Fitton. The wife/novelist has, of course, to be at least as clever as the husband/detective. There’s a lovely little illustration of this in the very last page of More Work for the Undertaker. Amanda has been absent throughout the novel, but at the very end, when all has been satisfactorily resolved, a letter from her belatedly reaches Campion. She has been able to follow the case only through the press reports, but in a brief PS she is able to identify the true villain, something which has thoroughly mystified Campion himself throughout most of the previous 280 pages.