Written by Margery Allingham — As one of the so-called queens of the Golden Age of crime fiction, Margery Allingham’s an author whose works have remained in print decades after they were first published. Her amateur sleuth Albert Campion, an affable aristocrat, appeared in 19 novels by Allingham. Following her death in 1966, further Campion novels were published by her husband and, more recently, by the crime fiction doyen Mike Ripley.
Campion’s clearly one of the most enduring literary detectives. So it makes sense that publisher Vintage is reissuing the complete Campion series over the course of the next year, and the campaign started with one of her most notable works. The Tiger in the Smoke, published in 1952, was adapted into a film four years later.
Allingham’s story about a serial killer is set in post-war London, a city she knew well. As Susan Hill notes in her introduction, London – its squares, side streets, alleyways and typical conversation – is a character in The Tiger in the Smoke, just as it is in Dickens’s novels. Then there is the sinister fog of 1950s London, an almost supernatural presence in the story that makes it so much easier for the killer to evade the police.
Jack Havoc is on the loose, having escaped from prison. He’s killed a doctor and left bloody mayhem at a firm of solicitors. Havoc is on the hunt for key information that will lead him to the buried treasure he learned about during a wartime adventure with the late Major Elginbrodde. Meanwhile, his former wartime compatriots – a street band on the margins of society – are searching for information about the same booty. They kidnap Geoffrey Levett, who’s engaged to Meg Elginbrodde, the war widow of the major who led that World War II expedition in France. It seems their hunt for the prize they’ve been holding out for since the end of the war will take them across the channel.
Meg, who’s unaware about her connection to the treasure, enlists the help of Campion, the nephew of her father. Canon Avril is an unworldly clergyman who’s naïve when it comes to killers like Havoc. Avril is more concerned about the man’s soul, while Campion and Inspector Luke sense real danger. “The ancient smell of evil, acrid and potent as the stench of fever,” is how Campion describes the threat of Jack Havoc.
Compared to the stories of the 30s, The Tiger in the Smoke is a different Campion. Rather than a single crime to be solved, this is an early – and very atmospheric – example of the serial killer story. The pre-war Campion novels were elegant golden age tales featuring the slightly comical amateur sleuth and his rough manservant, Lugg, a former burglar. In the 50s, Campion is married with a young son and more serious about life as well as crime and detection. The world has also changed since the war: aristocrats no longer dabble in crime with such a sense of entitlement. Inspector Luke, a Cockney cop, is just as important in this case, though Campion still shows a few flashes of genius.
The Tiger in the Smoke is a classic, and like many classics it can be a little difficult to get into. Allingham allows the plot to develop gradually, while introducing a growing cast of characters from various strata of society. While in some ways it’s a simple tale of pursuit, the narrative is enriched by the social realism of the struggling ex-servicemen and the presence of Canon Avril, whose spiritual enquiries feel like something from a Graham Greene novel.
There may be more fun to be had with Campion in the 1930s, but The Tiger in the Smoke is a book that feels less dated and more ambitious. Sixty-three years after it was first published, it remains a genuinely terrifying and evocative crime novel about evil abroad in the fogbound city. Once you’ve read it, it’s hard to shake off the sense of foreboding that permeates this serial killer story.
Read a review of a classic 1933 Campion novel here.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars