The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham

Wonderfully atmospheric…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Meg has just become engaged to Geoffrey Levett when she begins to receive photographs which appear to show her previous husband, Major Martin Elginbrodde, who was declared dead during World War One. Now the sender of the photographs has given her a time and place to meet, and Meg has asked family friend Albert Campion and Detective Chief Inspector Charles Luke of the police to accompany her. The police catch the man but he refuses to answer their questions and, having no grounds to hold him, they are forced to release him. Shortly afterwards he is found murdered, and the last person who was seen with him was Geoffrey. Meantime a violent prisoner has escaped from jail, a man named Jack Havoc, whom Luke’s boss, Superintendent Oates, says is one of the only three wholly evil people he has come across in his career. This would appear to be confirmed when three people are found brutally murdered in a lawyer’s office, showing all the signs of Havoc’s modus operandi.

This all takes place in the middle of one of London’s famous pea-souper fogs that sometimes lasted for days. Because of these fogs London was nicknamed the Smoke, hence the title of the book. While there is a mystery at the beginning as to the photographs of the Major and why Havoc has chosen this time to break out of prison, we find out the answers to these questions fairly early on, and most of the book is really in the form of a thriller. Allingham uses the fog and some great characterisation to create a wonderfully threatening atmosphere and some truly tense suspense which kept me turning the pages long into the night.

It soon becomes clear that a group of men are involved, who have turned themselves into a band to busk the streets in order to scrape a living, though again for a long time we don’t know exactly what their involvement is. Some of the men are ex-Army, each of them has some kind of disability or deformity, and they are all led by the rather terrifying Tiddy Doll, himself an albino. I doubt a modern writer could or would use disability in the way Allingham does, to create a really creepy atmosphere reminiscent of freak shows in horror novels, so a reader has to be prepared to make allowances for the time of writing. It is, however, very effective, and serves as a reminder of how many men came back from war damaged physically or mentally.

Book 85 of 90

I’ve never been a huge fan of Albert Campion and therefore I was quite happy that he plays a rather low-key role in this one, mostly because the mystery element isn’t huge. This also means that his loyal henchman (aka dogsbody) Magersfontein Lugg has very little presence on the page, and for that I’m devoutly thankful. Allingham’s horribly snobbish portrayal of Lugg as the common working-class servant, complete with comedy name and accent, devoted to his upper-class owner master employer, is one of the major reasons Allingham and I don’t get along as well as I’d like.

Instead, in the first two thirds or so, we mostly follow Geoff as he gets himself into deep peril, and Inspector Luke as he and his men try to catch up with Havoc. The tension wafts from the page in these scenes, and they are undoubtedly as thrilling as anything I’ve come across in crime fiction, old or new. Because of the air of horror, it reminded me a little of the atmosphere of decadence and Grand Guignol that John Dickson Carr creates in his early Bencolin novels.

Margery Allingham

The book was heading straight for the five-star bracket at this stage, but for me the main climax came too early, and the last section of the book felt needlessly long-drawn out. I haven’t mentioned Meg’s saintly father, Canon Avril, who has surrounded himself with various waifs and strays who form a kind of extended family (mostly of working-class people devoted to upper-class Canon Avril and Meg, but never mind). In the final section Allingham indulges in a, to me, rather tedious, lengthy theological discussion on what Havoc calls “the Science of Luck” and Avril refers to as “the Pursuit of Death”. Frankly I had no idea what it was about and cared even less. In practice it seemed to mean that Havoc felt luck comes to those who look for opportunities. Anyway it takes over in the final few chapters, dictating Havoc’s actions which become progressively unbelievable, as do Canon Avril’s. I’d rather authors stuck to showing good battling evil rather than pontificating about it, especially in religious terms.

I’ve swithered over a rating, and decided that sadly I can only give it four. Had it ended differently it would have been a five for sure, for the earlier excellently atmospheric thriller elements.

I downloaded this one from fadedpage.com – here’s the link.

43 thoughts on “The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham

  1. I’m glad you picked up on the atmosphere here, FictionFan. There’s nothing like a ‘pea souper’ to add to the tension and the overall eeriness, is there? I’m glad you said what you said about the snobbishness, too. I thought it was only me noticed that. On the one hand, you have to put a book in the context of its times. On the other, it does grate – well, it did me, at any rate.

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    • Yes, stick a story in a London fog and you’ve pretty much got me hooked! And she uses it so well. I thought the whole middle section was really creepy and tense, just what a thriller should be! It’s a pity about the snobbishness. While the middle and upper classes are the stars of most of the Golden Agers, some treat their working class characters with respect or simply ignore them. But Allingham and one or two others tend to turn them into comedy turns, and that really grates on me. Even the name Magersfontein Lugg sets my teeth on edge… ugh!

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    • I’ve read a few of them and this is undoubtedly my favourite so far, mainly because Campion isn’t in it too much! I wish she’d come up with a better series detective and sidekick – that kind of snobbishness is pretty unbearable now.

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  2. Am not fond of Allingham, even less of Campion but I think this is an excellent book. Jack Havoc is a character one doesn’t forget in a hurry. And your fine review has made me want to read it again.

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    • Yes, I rarely mind outdated attitudes in older books unless I feel the author was being deliberately nasty, but usually they’re not. And if we were to avoid all books that have some non-PC stuff in them, we’d all run out of books quite quickly! 😉

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  3. How sad the ending didn’t work out. I’ve only read one Campion mystery so far, Flowers for the Judge where again the fog was quite prominent. Campion was not so there either so I didn’t form much of an impression of him. Lugg seemed fun though for he doesn’t or at least there didn’t let Campion walk all over him

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    • I haven’t read that one, but I’m very partial to books that use the London fogs – great for creating a creepy atmosphere! Hmm, I find the whole Lugg thing too reminiscent of the real class divides that exist in our society – I always hate when the upper-class ‘tec has a devoted lower-class sidekick. It’s the “devoted” bit, I object to – as if they were a pet dog! Like Lord Peter Wimsey’s Bunter – another one who puts me off the books!

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      • I can understand your reservations to the scenario; I usually just attribute such situations to the time they took place in; though in Agatha Christie’s The Secret of Chimneys (which I otherwise enjoy), a similar situation caused me to wince more than once

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        • It’s odd, because sometimes I’m able to overlook outdated attitudes easily, as I did with the stuff about disabled characters in this one, in fact. And then at other times something just jars me and I can’t just ignore it. There never seems to be much logic to it either! Must be tough being an author, trying to please people like me… 😉

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  4. As much as I love the atmosphere that fog can bring to a story, I’m not really tempted. I think there are too many others from this era that I’d enjoy more. (I am biting my tongue not to make an inappropriate comment about the premature climax! 🤭🤐😉.)

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    • Hahaha, I’ve become neurotic whenever I use the word “climax” – isn’t it terrible how we let words be hijacked? 😉 That’s a pity, because the tension-filled thriller side of this is excellent, but the ending does let it down.

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      • Ha! Well I was just teasing 😈. (That’s the emoji it gave me for that word) Seriously, I hate when a thriller abruptly ends… like the author just decided to be done with it, then and there.

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        • With this one it was more that she went on too long. She could have found some way to tie everything up so that the climax(!) came at the end. Instead there was a whole other section after it that became increasingly sillier as it went on… 😦

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  5. This is supposed to be her best one, I really enjoyed it but I don’t think it’s my favourite. For me anyway Campion improved with age, or maybe it was marriage!

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    • I was surprised to find he was married with a child in this one! It must be the only late one I’ve read – Campion has always been single in the few I’ve read before. He didn’t annoy me as much in this one, but only because he wasn’t in it very much… 😉

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    • I do think it’s well worth reading even if the ending lets it down a bit. The stuff about the disabled characters is of its time, and there aren’t really any offensive comments – it’s merely that they’re used as a kind of creepy horror trope that makes it feel a little uncomfortable now. Funnily enough I’ve come across a few mystery novels written between the wars that have people with disabilities caused by war wounds – I think we tend to remember how many died but forget that hundreds of thousands came home to a land not fit for heroes!

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      • I have actually just finished reading it. I was looking for an audiobook and none of my first choices were ready to borrow at the library, and this one was. I agree it is worth reading. The fog and confusions, the diverse characters, the thriller aspects. Even the ending off to a a sunny island is like coming into the light atmospherically. The actual ending felt incomplete, especially as an audio when I didn’t realise the end was approaching. Yes, I understand your points about disabled characters fitting one of the stereotypes of the time. I didn’t even mind the moralistic musings, though I agree they weren’t fully coherent (maybe that’s my Catholic childhood having left its mark 😉).

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        • Gosh, I wish I could get through audiobooks that quickly! It would have taken me two weeks to listen to it, at least! I’m glad you enjoyed it – I loved all the atmospheric, tense stuff in the middle and actually was impressed at how thrilling she made it. The moralistic musings did bore me however – I could have put up with them better if they’d happened earlier in the book, I think, but after the drama it all seemed like an anti-climax, as did the nature of the treasure, I must say! Still, overall very enjoyable and my favourite Campion to date (mainly because he’s not in it much… 😉 )!

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            • It depends what my hands are doing. I can listen during mindless tasks like washing the dishes, but even things like simple cooking tasks tend to distract me and I find I’ve stopped paying attention and have to rewind. But if I listen when doing nothing… I fall asleep! Haha, thank goodness for paper books… 😉

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  6. The disability attitudes – as you term them are what was the norm when she wrote the book in 1951/52.
    Why interfere with actual history?

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  7. I love Allingham and her writing, and I gave this one five stars. I checked out my review, which was pretty brief, and I enjoyed Canon Avril’s role. But this was still not my favorite Allingham and I put it off for a long time because it is so different from her other books. I am sure I had read this one before in my youth but had little memory of it when I reread it two years ago.

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    • I liked Canon Avril up to the bit at the end where it all got bogged down in a theological debate that didn’t hold my interest. But I loved the tension she built up in the middle! I still haven’t read much Allingham and this was very different to what I expect of a Campion book. I do enjoy her, just not as much as some of the other Golden Agers.

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  8. This sounds really good, like you I think I’d enjoy it – a good london fog is a delicious drink AND plot device! (do you have london fogs over there?) Anyway, I too hate when the climax comes too early, it’s such a disappointment, so I’d agree with your 4 star rating here.

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    • Ha, I think we do but I’ve never had one! It sounds awful to me… 😂 But London fogs are really great for atmosphere in crime fiction or horror – what a pity we’ve cleaned up the air and don’t have them now! I blame to politicians… 😉

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