RogerBW's Blog

The Tiger in the Smoke, Margery Allingham 28 May 2017

1952 classic English detective fiction; fourteenth of Allingham's novels of Albert Campion. Meg Elginbrodde thought she was widowed in the war, and now plans to marry again; but someone is sending her recent photographs of a man who might be her late husband. Can it really be as simple as blackmail?

No, of course it can't; it's all much more complicated than that. But much of the mystery will revealed quite early: who's doing the killing, and at least approximately why, is clear by the half-way mark, and the remainder of the story is mostly thriller rather than detection.

He's done nothing illegal and nothing reprehensible. Gambling is the only thing they don't call you to account for these days. It's not like working; you can be penalised for that. Gambling is respectable. I have two bob on the pools myself every week, I've got to think of my old age. My pension won't keep me.

Campion himself has moved largely to the background (where he often was in the earliest books of the series); he goes away and finds stuff, and then comes back to talk about what he's found, but it's Charlie Luke the policeman who's mostly the protagonist here, with some sections from the viewpoint of Meg's intended as well as a few others.

He was the best of policemen, which is to say that he never for one moment assumed that he was judge or jury, warder or hangman. He saw himself as the shepherd dog does; until he had rounded him up the malefactor was his private responsibility, to be protected as well as cornered.

There are a few Chestertonian touches here, both a new take on his invisible man and a theological discussion between the killer and an elderly priest which seems as though it might belong in an entirely different book. There's also unfinished business from the war, a lost treasure, and an abrupt but dreamlike closing scene frankly reminiscent of Murnau's Nosferatu.

This is very much a book of its time as well as its place: tired, worn-out London, that's survived the war but hasn't yet come to terms with just what was lost. Grimy fog blankets everything, stopping you from seeing just how grimy it would still be even without the fog. (And this was written before the Great Smog of December 1952.)

"There ain't no servant girls now, Gaffer. All that's been done away with while you was inside."

And there's one of the most horrible people I've seen in any detective story, because she has such an effective smiling face.

"You know the sort of district this is. A lot of very good houses going down, and a very good lot of people going down too. Old ladies needing money more than jewellery and not knowing how to go about selling it. Bits of nice lace and a piece of old furniture on their hands, perhaps. Well, I'm not proud. Living near the Canon all these years has taught me how to be humble, I hope, and, like him, I like to do a bit of good where I can. So I trot round helping. There's many an old woman under a good eiderdown at this moment much more comfortable than if she only had her mother's cameo in a chest of drawers instead. I go everywhere and I know everyone. Sometimes I buy and sometimes I sell. And sometimes I have things given me for charity, and I turn them into money and send the little cheque to one of the societies."

This is a fairly slow-moving book by modern standards, but a solid one that repays a bit of a wallow rather than a fast-paced read.

Followed by The Beckoning Lady.

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