‘When he replaced his hat he put it on straight.’ Margery Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke

The-Tiger-in-the-Smoke-Reprint-Society

The 1953 Reprint Society edition

The Tiger in the Smoke
Margery Allingham
First published in the UK 1952, Chatto & Windus
This edition The Reprint Society, 1953
288 pages
Source: Reviewer’s own

It was on that freezing walk that Charlie Luke caught the first wind of the man who of all his many quarries was to become the chief enemy of his life.

One of the often-mentioned aspects of Tiger is that it is a Campion book in which Campion himself does very little to move the action along. I don’t entirely buy into this theory – Campion is directly responsible for discovering Tiddy Doll’s lair, for example. However, it is his friend Divisional Detective Chief inspector Charles Luke who leads the official hunt, and who is pivotal in terms of the book’s themes.

Luke is so vividly described in Allingham’s books that I’m always tempted to believe she was describing someone very close to her heart. He is emphatically a good guy, but he has an edge (which I sense she was not 100% comfortable with).

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, and his bright glance travelled everywhere.

Luke is always described in terms of his body language – he is a gifted physical mimic and everything he says is underlined by some gesture or exaggerated expression. I imagine he was probably the class clown at Hendon.

But Luke is emphatically down-to-earth and normal. As such he forms a marked contrast to other characters in Tiger, and to two of them in particular.

The first is Canon Hubert Avril, the father of Meg Elginbrodde (and an uncle of Campion’s). Avril is in many ways a caricature of a priest – entirely concerned with his religion. Luke’s wordliness is diametrically opposed to Avril’s innocence: the Cockney policeman is very much of the streets, whereas Avril…

‘By ordinary standards they’re not safe out. They ought to be starving in the gutter, imposed on by every crook in creation. But are they? Are they hell! There they go, picking their way like a drunk on a parapet, apparently obeying instructions which no one else can hear. They go barging into filth and it runs off them as if they were lead glazed.’

Their meetings are strange and seem unlikely to lead to any meeting of minds. Avril regards Luke as a boy, untried as yet (which seems a strange attitude, but of course he means untried spiritually). Luke sees the magic in Avril’s saintliness, but finds him easy to underestimate.

Without being in any way discourteous he soon managed to convey that he had seen faces like Uncle Hubert’s ‘befuddled old kisser’ before. He smiled, with a secret quirk of sheer street-boy naughtiness in his twisted lips, only to receive a considerable shock as he found it not only remarked and recognised but also forgiven by the old priest.

And yet of course they do get on. And of course, Avril is worldly, but in a very different register, one which Luke would have trouble recognising.

The other counterpoint to Luke is of course Jack Havoc, the tiger himself. Like Luke, Havoc is a slightly spivvy Londoner, handsome (or perhaps striking is a better word), and has immense force of personality. Allingham makes their similarities pretty explicit. This is Luke meeting the beautiful widow Meg Elginbrodde for the first time:

Luke shut off his magnetism regretfully, like a man switching off a light… when he replaced his hat he put it on straight.

This is Havoc receiving some bad news:

His magnetism faltered for a moment, like a current switched off and on.

The two never meet, but their conflict assumes a personal edge when Havoc knifes a young police constable who Luke regarded as promising. Luke is shown as breaking out of the sheepdog-mode of policing I discussed at the end of my last post.

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.

Quite a contrast to:

‘Who is he? A maniac?’
‘Not if I know it.’ Luke was softly ferocious. ‘No psychiatrist is going to get him off through that door. He’ll see the inside of a topping-shed when I get hold of him.’

The pursuit of the tiger turns Luke into a hunter himself.

So how do they differ? Both the hunter and his quarry work to the point of exhaustion. Both have violence in them. But Havoc starts closer to the edge than Luke, and of course he has no friends to keep him sane.

‘That’s the reason your wide-boy friends won’t give you no help, Gaffer,’ he said earnestly. ‘That’s why you ‘ad to come to us, who ain’t much bottle. You went wild at the lawyers’. You didn’t even wear gloves.’
‘Of course I wore gloves.’
‘You didn’t, you know.’ Tiddy was wagging his great head. ‘That was a habit you got out of in the war. It was such an ordinary habit that it went clean out of your mind. You knifed three people at the lawyers’ tonight just because they’d seen and might recognise you, and yet you went and left your signature all over the shop. You ain’t gone soft tonight, Gaffer, you’ve gone wild.’

In the next of these posts I’ll talk about the impact of the war on the characters in Tiger and on the city of London itself - an impact which is largely expressed through Luke.


More in 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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6 Responses to ‘When he replaced his hat he put it on straight.’ Margery Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke

  1. Such a good book – I’m glad you’re giving it the attention and extra posts it deserves.

  2. TracyK says:

    I have enjoyed the posts on this book also. I may have already said… this is the only Allingham book that I am not sure that I have read. So I hope to read it soon(ish).

  3. Pingback: ‘A little ghostly bean.’ Margery Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

  4. Pingback: ‘Sweat, petroleum and khaki…’ Margery Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

  5. Pingback: ‘We’re wonderfully highly mechanised at Central Office these days, Campion.’ Margery Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

  6. Pingback: ‘The sky was yellow as a duster…’ Margery Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

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