Reviewed by DAVID L. VINEYARD:         

MARGERY ALLINGHAM – The Tiger in the Smoke. Chatto & Windus, UK, hardcover, 1952. Doubleday, US, hc, 1952. Reprinted many times in both hardcover and paperback, including (shown): Dell 777, pb, ca.1954; Avon T-530, pb, ca.1961; Bantam, pb, 1985.

MARGERY ALLINGHAM Tiger in the Smoke

Film: As Tiger in the Smoke. J. Arthur Rank, 1956. Tony Wright, Donald Sinden, Alec Clunes, Muriel Pavlow, Bernard Miles, Laurence Naismith, Christopher Rhodes. Screenplay by Anthony Pelissier based on the novel by Margery Allingham. Director: Roy Ward Baker.

    The Tiger in the Smoke is a rarity among genre novels — a book that is also a first class novel. I can only think of a handful that fill that category: Nicholas Blake’s Death and Daisy Bland and A Private Wound, Michael Innes’s The New Sonia Wayward, Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye

    That Tiger in the Smoke also features Albert Campion, one of the major figures of the Golden Age of Detective fiction is all the more remarkable.

    Not that Tiger is a product of the Golden Age. For much of the novel we know who the criminal is and what his motive is. The novel is far more interested in the question of good and evil than simply who dunnit.

    The book wasn’t recognized as a masterpiece initially — at least not by everyone. Some critics seemed confused by Allingham stretching the boundaries of the detective story. In retrospect it has gained the reputation it deserves, though it sits outside the whole canon of Campion stories despite his presence and that of Inspector Charlie Luke, who had been introduced in More Work for the Undertaker, Amanda Campion, and the ever present Lugg.

MARGERY ALLINGHAM Tiger in the Smoke

    Notably the film leaves Campion, Amanda, and Lugg out of the story completely and they aren’t particularly missed.

    Three characters dominate Tiger: Jack Havoc is a former commando, war hero, deserter, and wild card, a Teddy Boy with a streak of violence and a persona of evil unleashed, “killing recklessly and all for nothing”; Canon Avril is a quiet gentle man who tends his flock and as part of his job finds himself confronting Jack, “…with an approach to life which was clear sighted yet slightly off-centre.”

    Finally there is the location itself, a portion of London known as the Smoke, St. Petersgate Square (based on Linden Gardens and Notting Hill Gate), where “…ramshackle stalls roofed with flapping tarpaulin and lit with naked bulbs jostled each other down each side of the littered road” and there are “…a lot of good houses going down, and a lot of good people too”.

    There is one other character important to the novel. The fog; those post war fogs which twined about London like deadly serpents and caused hundreds of deaths. Fog in London is almost a character in itself in the novel.

    The fog slopped over its low houses like a bucketful of cold soup over a row of dirty stoves.

MARGERY ALLINGHAM Tiger in the Smoke

    The theme of the novel was first expressed by Allingham in The Oaken Heart (M. Joseph, 1941):

    Active evil is more incomprehensible in this two-part-perfect world than active good, and so it ought to be.

    The novel follows Havoc’s crimes and the police hunt for him as he terrorizes the Smoke on a rampage involving his hunt for a treasure he believes is hidden in St. Odile. Eventually Havoc and Avril confront each other and Avril tries to warn Havoc that his “Science of Luck” is a false god:

    “Evil be thou my Good, that is what you have discovered. It is the only sin which cannot be forgiven because when it is finished with you you are not there to forgive.”

    And it is to Allingham’s credit that while Avril is wholly good, even Havoc is not wholly evil. In the end he is destroyed as much by that touch of good he cannot avoid as by all his evil actions and plans.

    It isn’t as if Campion has nothing to do in the novel. In fact he has one Great Detective moment, and a memorable one as it turns out, because during it Lugg gets to express the frustration of every Watson in the genre and no small number of readers.

    Campion and Amanda are in their car with Lugg driving, and in response to a question from Amanda Campion gives one of those obscure Great Detective answers where he doesn’t quite answer the question about a written clue and Lugg explodes:

    “Oh, for God’s sake! … Drivin’ this and listenin’ to you, it’s like being up to me eyes in the creek. What ’ad the perisher wrote down?”

MARGERY ALLINGHAM Tiger in the Smoke

    You just know that Watson, Archie Goodwin, and even Captain Hastings felt like expressing something very close to that a thousand times.

    Havoc and the Canon aren’t the only characters in the book worth noting. Young Inspector Luke is new to the area and caught up in the brutal violence fired by Jack Havoc’s quest for his treasure; Geoffrey Levitt and Meg Eliginbroddie, a young war widow, are lovers caught up in the danger; Doll is a gang leader challenged and endangered by Havoc’s reckless crimes; and Mrs. Cash, Havoc’s mother is often the voice of the Smoke itself.

    In the film Tony Wright was Havoc; Laurence Naismith, Canon Avril; Alec Clunes, Charlie Luke; and Bernard Miles was Doll. Sadly the film is too little seen and hard to find, but it is well worth catching if you get the chance. Roy Ward Baker’s other films include Highly Dangerous and The October Man both excellent suspense films (and both with screenplays by Eric Ambler).

    The inevitability of Havoc’s fall doesn’t interfere with the suspense as the novel moves along tightening the suspense and involving the reader more deeply.

    Tiger in the Smoke is one you won’t easily forget or put aside when you have finished it. Jack Havoc will linger in your imagination in a way human monsters sometimes do long after the theatrics of a Hannibal Lector have been consigned to the same sub-basement of the imagination as Bruce the Shark or other childish fears.

MARGERY ALLINGHAM Tiger in the Smoke

    Allingham manages to capture real evil in all its attraction and repulsion just as she counters it with a good man who is neither cliched nor unworldly. For that alone this is a first class novel and not only a detective novel — though it is a good one of those too.

    And it really is a remarkable novel to have been written by one of the unquestioned queens of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.

Editorial Comment. 07-15-10.   I’ve done a search for Tiger in the Smoke on DVD, and if you have a multi-region player, then you’d be in luck, if you were looking for it. I found a boxed set of Donald Sinden movies on Amazon-UK, and Tiger is one of them.