A review of The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham
If, like me, you have been puzzled about what all the fuss was about Margery Allingham and why she is considered worthy of a place in the higher echelons of the Golden Age detective writers, then this is the book that settles any doubts once and for all. If you have never read any of her books, this, the fourteenth in her Albert Campion series and originally published in 1952, is the one to start with. It is a highly entertaining and impressive book which works on several levels.
It is less of a whodunit – there is no doubting who the murderer is – and more of a whydunit, less of a conventional detective story and more of a thriller. It has a profound sense of time and place, most of the action taking place in post Second World War London (the Smoke) where the smog is thick and law-abiding citizens can barely see a foot in front of them but ideal conditions for a miscreant, particularly one handy with a knife. Throughout the book runs a rich vein of terror and foreboding, menace and violence.
The most interesting character in the book is the self-styled Jack Havoc who lives up to his name by prowling the metropolis like a tiger, stopping at nothing, not even murder, to get his hands on any information that will inch him nearer to getting his hands on the treasure he learnt about whilst on a secret operation to the Normandy coast in the war. He is a psychopath and Allingham spends time in developing his character and allowing the reader to understand his blinkered ambition to get hold of what he believes will seal his fortune.
Havoc believes that he operates according to the Science of Luck, beliefs which, surprisingly, share some surprising similarities to Canon Avril’s own philosophy of life. While Havoc is beyond hope of redemption, Avril believes that everyone is worthy of salvation. As they discuss their philosophies in a terrific set piece towards the end of the book, it is clear that there are many similarities between the philosophies espoused by the rather unworldly Canon and Havoc, whom the priest recognises as someone who lived in the neighbourhood as a boy. Their debate leads to the story’s denouement, the canon inadvertently giving away the location of the treasure but unnerving Havoc sufficiently to miss his strike and only wound the priest.
The other intriguing aspect of the book is the part played by the quaintly named Tiddy Doll and his rag bag group of old servicemen who are waiting for the return of the Gaffer. They tramp up and down the streets, making a discordant noise with their instruments, demanding monies, and heralding the sense that something sinister is about to happen. When Havoc does appear, in rather dramatic circumstances, Doll realises that Havoc is more in need of their help than vice versa.
The trio tasked with resolving a case involving several murders, kidnap, and the hunt for treasure, are Campion, who adopts a customary low profile in the case, Inspector Luke, and Geoffrey Levitt, whose engagement to Meg Elginbrodde, throws him headlong into danger. Why is someone trying to convince Meg that her former husband, presumed missing in action during the War, is still alive? What is the treasure kept safe in his family’s deserted house on the Normandy coast? Loan sharks, blackmail, deliberate misidentifications, family secrets, the laying of ghosts all feature prominently in the story.
The thrilling denouement pits Havoc against Meg on the Normandy coast. The treasure proves to be monetarily worthless, albeit aesthetically beautiful, and a broken Havoc makes his peace in his own way.