‘The sky was yellow as a duster…’ Margery Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke

The 1962 Penguin edition, originally owned by F.A.F.  7/11/62

The 1962 Penguin edition, originally owned by F.A.F. 7/11/62

The Tiger in the Smoke
Margery Allingham
First published in the UK 1952, Chatto & Windus
This edition Penguin Books, 1961
224 pages
Source: Reviewer’s own

In the shady ways of Britain today it is customary to refer to the Metropolis of London as the Smoke.

Coincidentally, as the UK suffers its worst smog in years, I am reading a book in which the London fog is almost a character in itself.

The Tiger in the Smoke is usually regarded as Margery Allingham’s finest work (it’s certainly in the top three). After reading works by her successors Philip Youngman Carter and now Mike Ripley, I decided to head back to the original to refresh my memory.

In chapter one we are introduced to a young couple about to get married: Geoffrey Levett and Meg Elginbrodde. Geoffrey is a successful entrepreneur; Meg a bright young designer. They are ostensibly the perfect couple, but they are in crisis. Meg has been receiving photos of her first husband Martin in the post. Like many a war widow, Meg married young and in a hurry, and saw her husband very little before his death overseas six years earlier. The photographs are blurred, but the figure is familiar enough to make her half-believe Martin is still alive. Geoffrey is taking Meg in a taxi to meet the man at Paddington. Upset and suffering from chronically divided loyalties, Meg says goodbye to Geoffrey and goes in without him. She doesn’t know whether to expect blackmail, a con trick, or some terrible remnant of her husband. Fortunately, she is not alone. Meg is a cousin of Albert Campion, the famed amateur detective, and he has brought along his friend Chief Inspector Charlie Luke.

Meanwhile, a man known only as Jack Havoc – regarded as one of the most dangerous criminals in the country – has escaped from prison by feigning insanity. Already he has killed and the police have initiated an enormous man-hunt. But in the London fog it is difficult to find anything or anyone.

Dead or alive, Martin Elginbrodde is merely the first link in a chain which will link the fates of Jack Havoc, Geoffrey and Meg, Meg’s saintly father Canon Avril, and a sinister band of street musicians led by the albino Tiddy Doll. On one side, Havoc is hunting and killing almost with impunity, getting tired and sloppy but trusting to his seemingly endless store of luck. On the other, the police led by Charlie Luke tirelessly sift evidence and witness reports in an attempt to track him down. In the middle, Meg’s family and friends sit fog-bound in the vicarage in St Petersgate Square, in more danger than they know.

The Tiger in the Smoke is not just a story about a man-hunt; it works on several levels as I’ll explain in the next few posts. But first of all, the fog.

As in Bleak House, the fog settles in chapter one and the reader doesn’t escape its grasp until the final chapters. Allingham brings all of her formidable powers of description to bringing it alive:

The fog was like a saffron blanket soaked in ice-water. It had hung over London all day and at last was beginning to descend. The sky was yellow as a duster and the rest was a granular black, overprinted in grey and lightened by occasional slivers of bright fish colour as a policeman turned in his cape.

Sky as yellow as a duster is actually quite difficult to envisage in these less-polluted days, even this week. Allingham also anthropomorphises the fog (one of her signature tricks):

The fog had crept into the taxi where it crouched panting in a traffic jam. It oozed in ungenially, to smear sooty fingers over the two elegant young people who sat inside.

Quite apart from allowing Allingham to show off her writing, the fog has practical uses to a man on the run, making concealment and murder simpler. And the fog is exceptional:

If the fog had only cleared, tempers might have cooled, but now, at the end of the second day, it had become the father of fogs, thicker and dirtier and more exasperating than any on living memory. The only people not astounded by it were visiting Americans.

So we have fog as plot-point and as metaphor: writing at peak efficiency.

More on Tiger later…

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

See also:

Ela’s Book Blog (‘Havoc’s a charismatic and handsome man, not the snivelling ugly or disfigured face of evil, as he’d be in the hands of a lesser writer (yes, I’m looking at you, Ian Fleming), but there is still a powerful sense of his otherness, his utter ruthlessness and callousness.’)

Shelf Love (‘Like Campion himself, Allingham’s Campion novels have gotten more serious. This book in particular has a lot on its mind, but it raises questions, rather than answering them. As usual, we do learn who did it in the end, but that question isn’t the important one. Why did he do it? What makes a person evil? How should the good respond to the evil? How will evil respond in the face of goodness?’)

Moving Toyshop (‘Every element of good mystery writing – plot, pace, narration, characterisation, location writing, humour – is present, but there are in addition those almost intangible factors which elevate the good to the great. In large part I think these are connected to the risk taking – the philosophical speculation, the assignation of a back-seat to the lead series character, the use of the fog as both physical device and over-arching metaphor, the creation and use of two unrealistic central characters – which Allingham was willing to attempt.’)

Final destination: A keeper

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

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
This entry was posted in Classic mystery book review, Margery Allingham, Suspense, Thriller, Witness Statements and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to ‘The sky was yellow as a duster…’ Margery Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke

  1. realthog says:

    You reminded me how extraordinarily good this novel is — many thanks! I’ll have to go see if I can dig up a copy to reread: it’s been a while, and I always get something extra out of it.

    I rewatched the movie a couple of years ago, and enjoyed it much more this time around than when I’d last seen it . . . which must have been some decades ago!


    • westwoodrich says:

      Same time distance for me, I remember spotting it as I changed channel and realising almost immediately what it was even though there was no Campion. Pre-internet I had no idea there was a film. Haven’t seen it since.


  2. I am in complete agreement so far Rich 🙂


  3. heavenali says:

    A fabulous title, and a brilliant sounding mystery novel. I’ve not read enough Allingham.


  4. Margot Kinberg says:

    Excellent post, Rich! Have you seen this one from Clothes in Books?


  5. Great minds think alike Rich – the current cloud cover made me think of this book too. Always one of my Top Ten anyway. Looking forward to the next post.


  6. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    I need to revisit Allingham – it’s so long since I read her – and fortunately enough I have this one on my shelves and this has *really* whetted my appetite. London fogs are *so* atmospheric…..


  7. Thanks for the reminder; this is one my favorite Allingham’s. I wondered if Carl Sandburg read it and it inspired his poem~


  8. Juxtabook says:

    This is my favourite Allingham. I’m not surprised you feel the need for more than one post on it – it is so complex. I used to re-read it quite often but must have left the best part of ten years go by since the last time – a good reminder to go back to it. Thanks.


  9. Santosh Iyer says:

    I have read the book and I have seen the film. I enjoyed the film more than the book because the book is often slow-paced (in my opinion).
    Though Campion is absent in the film, it essentially follows the book with some minor changes, especially towards the end.The camera work is superb.
    In the initial scene of the film, we see the 6 ex-servicemen walking in single file as street musicians through the crowded marketplace. They seem to be just part of the surroundings, but they turn out to be important characters in the film, as any reader of the book will know.
    Jack Havoc does not look like a thug who has been just released from jail. When he jumps into the cellar and we see him properly for the first time, he is clean-shaven, his hair is properly combed and he is dressed in neat and clean suit, tie and raincoat; in fact, he looks like a gentleman.Well, appearances are often deceptive !


  10. Santosh Iyer says:

    A correction in the previous comments. Please edit “who has been just released from jail” to read as “who has just escaped from jail”.


  11. Pingback: Recent Reads: The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham | Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings

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

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

  14. Pingback: ‘When he replaced his hat he put it on straight.’ Margery Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

  15. 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

  16. Pingback: Margery Allingham: Sweet Danger | Past Offences: Classic crime, thrillers and mystery book reviews

Make a statement...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s