‘We’re wonderfully highly mechanised at Central Office these days, Campion.’ Margery Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke

The 1983 Penguin edition

The 1983 Penguin edition

The Tiger in the Smoke
Margery Allingham
First published in the UK 1952, Chatto & Windus
This edition Penguin Books, 1983
224 pages
Source: Reviewer’s own

Hitherto she had thought very little about policemen, classing them vaguely as necessities which were on the whole beneficial, like banks or the parliamentary system.

Last time I looked at the fog in The Tiger in the Smoke, regarded by many as Margery Allingham’s finest work. This time, the police.

Tiger is a love-letter to the police. Allingham never subscribed to the police = bumbling idiots school of crime writing (although in fact I don’t think many authors did). Campion, that archetype of the talented amateur, was rarely seen without a friendly policeman. The melancholy Stanislaus Oates appeared in Campion’s youth and is an old friend by the time he shambles in at the beginning of Tiger:

He was still the shabby dyspeptic figure, thickening unexpectedly in the middle, who peered out at a wicked world from under a drooping hat brim.

Oates’ place in the books is being taken by Charlie Luke. Where Oates was glum, Luke is all energy and passion.

Charlie Luke in his spiv civilians looked at best like a heavy-weight champion in training [...] As usual he conveyed intense but suppressed excitement and rigidly controlled physical strength, but his bright glance travelled everywhere.

But it’s not just individual policemen, it’s the Police Force that really features. Again and again we are told about their tireless work, their patience and experience, their courage and commitment.

Scotland Yard reacted in its own way. Its odd, elastic organisation stretched out to embrace the emergency with smooth purposefulness [...] keyed up to serve and dying for the opportunity, was the whole beautiful mechanism of detection. Each department, working tirelessly and with experience, sifted every piece of incoherent evidence, and gave polite and careful attention to very frightened telephone call.

There must have been something in the air (apart from that fog). Tiger was published in 1952. Dixon of Dock Green appeared in The Blue Lamp in 1950. John Creasey’s excellent Gideon’s Day came out in 1955 and a year later in the US, the first 87th Precinct novel Cop Hater was published by Ed McBain.

The age of the police procedural was dawning. Campion himself seems to recognise that his time – the time of the amateur sleuth – has passed:

‘The days when little Albert charged into battle single-handed have gone for good. Havoc is police work, good hefty police work, with medals and promotions at the end of it.’

You could argue there was a new appreciation of the police as a corporation, a well-oiled machine, with the top cop now seen as a talented senior manager. Even Luke, the man of action, is seen at his desk reading piles of reports.

His desk was stacked high with dockets. There were the Flying Squad’s confidential memos, containing news and gossip from informers [...] There were copies of all the more hopeful telegrams from police headquarters over the country, reporting suspicious characters observed or detained. There were details of every car theft reported in the Metropolis in the past three days…

Alternatively you could trace this vision of the police back to the war, when large-scale organisation became the norm (as Luke points out: ‘I bet you every man under sixty in this street is ex-Service, and half the women too.’)

Or the coming of the technological age.

‘We’re wonderfully highly mechanised at Central Office these days, Campion. Teleprinters, radar, coloured lights everywhere.’

Either way, the police procedural is still going strong – even if it is less explicitly paternalistic today than it was in the 1950s

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.

Luke’s attitudes change in Tiger when things get personal, as we’ll see in the next post.


More of this series of reviews:  1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Final destination: A keeper


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Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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7 Responses to ‘We’re wonderfully highly mechanised at Central Office these days, Campion.’ Margery Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke

  1. TracyK says:

    This is a great post. I love police procedurals. I thought that I had read all of Allingham’s books years ago (and I probably did), and many of them twice. But this one doesn’t ring any bells and I have been planning to read it for a while now.

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