‘A little ghostly bean.’ Margery Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke

My first edition copy – with a cover designed by Allingham’s husband Philip ‘Pip’ Youngman Carter. So yes, I have five different versions of this book.

My first edition copy – with a cover designed by Allingham’s husband Philip ‘Pip’ Youngman Carter. So yes, I have five different versions of this book.

The Tiger in the Smoke
Margery Allingham
First published in the UK 1952, Chatto & Windus
pages
Source: Reviewer’s own

‘What is the soul? When I was a child I thought it was a little ghostly bean, kidney-shaped, I don’t know why. Now I think of it as the man I am with when I am alone.’

So far I’ve looked at the fog, the police, the army, and Charlie Luke. Thanks for all the comments, by the way. The last aspect of The Tiger in the Smoke I’d like to examine is the minor matter of good and evil.

Jack Havoc is evil – everybody thinks that, including the experts. Stanislaus Oates, the elderly policeman who says he has encountered very little true evil in his life recognises it in him (‘It’s like seeing Death for the first time.’). More importantly, so does the saintly Canon Avril. So Havoc isn’t just a bad apple, his badness is of a different order of magnitude. He completely outclasses the petty cruelty of Tiddy Doll, for example.

Havoc’s evil is defined theologically more than anything. This isn’t the cartoonish, quasi-demonic evil of a Hannibal Lector. Havoc, in his wilful ignorance, has devised his own personal theology of might equals right, and refined it in his years in prison. He believes he is making his own luck by trusting in his vision, and events support that belief – witness his near-miraculous escape from prison.

Probably only Canon Avril understands the exact nature of Havoc’s damnation – for everybody else it is an instinctive feeling, but Avril has a technical appreciation of his philosophy.

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

Avril, of course, wants to slow down Havoc’s fall into sin. It’s Havoc’s last chance – a real bit of luck.

So that’s the evil, what about the good? Canon Avril is depicted almost as a saint, surrounded by devoted acolytes. He even wears a monk’s robes as a dressing gown. Allingham emphasises his unworldliness time and time again, but maybe otherworldly is a better word. Unlike Chesterton’s Father Brown, Avril manages to be perpetually surprised by the practicalities and intricacies of crime. But he is entirely unsurprised by the underlying cause of crime – sin – and prepared to meet it head on at a moment’s notice.

But he is not without weakness. He has his own personal demon: Mrs Cash is a pepperpot-like woman who lends small amounts of money to local housewives at insane rates of interest but manages to keep on the right side of the law. As much as Havoc, she is wholly evil, just on a domesticated scale. And Avril finds he hates her, for reasons which go deeper than an opposition to her rather grubby brand of malevolence.

Picot realised with a shock that these were not so much old friends as old enemies. There was a familiarity there which belongs only to the years and is almost a cosiness, but they were not on the same side.

This of course is Avril’s sin.

I find I don’t have the intellectual tools to describe all this as well as Allingham does. If you haven’t read Tiger I urge you to do so at the earliest opportunity.

Given that this is a blog about crime fiction, it’s interesting that I haven’t really written about good and evil much, and I have never used the word ‘soul’. And where I have written about ‘good and evil’, I’m using the terms in the way a child might use ‘goodies and baddies’. I suspect the reason for this is that crime fiction has been relativistic from its early days. Saints and sinners are a bit Enid Blyton – in grown-up fiction we know that there are no goodies and baddies, just people who have taken their own paths. Those people might be doing bad things in the book, but we don’t actually think the author is consigning them to hell for it. Their souls don’t come into it. We’re just not engaging with the fiction on that level. I think the explicit rejection of this is what makes Tiger such a striking novel.

Can anybody think of other examples of crime fiction which tackles these issues?


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.

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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10 Responses to ‘A little ghostly bean.’ Margery Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Five copies! That must make it definitely worth reading – I read this so long ago I can’t remember anything about it, but I have a copy shouting at me from Mount TBR……. 🙂

    Like

  2. TracyK says:

    I love it that I am not the only one who gets multiple copies of favorite books. I have at least five copies of Fer de Lance by Rex Stout. They are all paperback copies since I cannot afford the hardback editions, but there are many wonder paperback editions of the early Rex Stout books.

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  3. I have read Tiger but it was so long ago and I really need to read it again. And maybe to reread Margery Allingham chronologically …

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