More Work for the Undertaker, Margery Allingham. London: Vintage, 2007 (originally published in 1948).
Summary: When two boarding house residents from the same family die, Albert Campion is persuaded to become a boarder to discover what’s afoot.
I’m a “Queens of Crime” fan, having read many of the mysteries of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Ngaio Marsh. There is a fourth “queen” I’ve not read until now, Margery Allingham, whose main character is the aristocratic Albert Campion. I picked at random one that was available inexpensively as an e-book, which happens to be number 13 in the series, More Work for the Undertaker.
Campion has been persuaded by the Chief of Scotland Yard, Stanislaus Oates to become an “undercover” boarder at the boarding house of Renee Roper, a faded actress. The house once belonged to the Palinode family, a professor and his eccentric children. Two have died recently under suspicious circumstances, both Edward and Ruth, from apparent strokes. Three remain, the moody Lawrence, the fashionable Evadne, and the eccentric herbalist, Jessica.
Exhumations reveal that Ruth, who had a gambling problem, had been poisoned, but not Edward. Ruth also had willed seemingly worthless shares to another boarder, Captain Seton. Except that there is evidence that the shares are about to become very valuable. Who would want her dead? A family member? Or someone else with an interest.
There are funny things happening on Apron Street, where the Palinodes live. The “skinny” among is that some of their number are disappearing “up Apron Street.” Campion has his suspicions of the undertaker when he sees him and his son carrying a coffin from Renee’s boarding house basement to their business across the road but everything about them seems on the up and up. As Campion and DDI Charlie Luke, with whom he is working pursue investigations, an interview with the pharmacist results in a suicide by cyanide. Then there is the banker, Congreve, who goes missing. Meanwhile, a young man dating a girl at the boarding house is found badly concussed in a shed where he stored his motorbike.
There are so many threads going on that it is not always easy to keep track of it all and one wonders how it all connects. I don’t know if this is characteristic of all of Allingham’s works, but her plot here is the most complicated of those I’ve encountered among the Queens of Crime. A list of characters would certainly be helpful. But the characters are quirky enough to be really interesting and the culminating events make both an exciting finish and tie up all the loose ends. It feels to me that Allingham demands more of the reader, but rewards that with a truly complicated and fascinating mystery. I may well try a few more!