One of my favourite blogs is Past Offences, which is always a great source of reviews of classic crime fiction. Recently, they did a wonderful series of posts on Margery Allingham’s “The Tiger in the Smoke”, an Albert Campion mystery from 1951. Alas, many of my old crime books went in a purge some years back, but coincidentally I picked up a copy of “Tiger” in a charity shop last year, figuring it would be nice to revisit a Campion novel – and these lovely posts prompted me to pick it up!

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The Tiger of the title is knife-man Johnny Havoc, on the run from jail and with a very particular agenda; the Smoke is of course an old term for London, but could also refer to the severe fog which has hit the city, making it easy for criminals to elude justice, all smoke and mirrors. However, the story opens in a slightly low-key way, with Meg Eglinbrodde and Geoffrey Levett, who are engaged, in a cab on the way to meeting Campion and Inspector Luke. Meg’s husband, who was reported killed in WWII, has apparently made a miraculous reappearance, via a series of fuzzy photos. Is this a case of blackmail or something more sinister?

It’s not obvious initially what connection there is between this case, and the ‘Tiger’ of the title. There is a rather alarming band of ragged ex-servicemen making a living as a street band; Meg’s father Canon Avril and his household who are quite a motley bunch; hints of the past and reminders that though people have been trying to throw off the wartime blues and move forward, the conflict is still very alive in some people’s minds.

One of the first things that struck me about “Tiger” was the quality of the writing – it’s simply superb, and that’s something I often find in Golden Age Crime. The best of the books and writers (Sayers also springs to mind) were wonderful novelists who happened to write in the crime genre, which is why they’re still read now and will continue to be so. The plot and characterisation are gripping, and it’s a tribute to how good Allingham is that she manages to convey the immense feeling of fear, and the danger of Havoc, without ever resorting to the gory detail and ghastly effects of modern writing. In fact, it creates an even more dangerous atmosphere by just the threat of Havoc’s actions, his very danger and unpredictability. The constant shifts of perspective rack up the tension, and the suspense at some points is palpable.
Oddly, Campion himself is not the dominant character in the book, and alas the wonderful Lugg is barely present – but this is a later Allingham, I suppose. Nevertheless, Albert is a crucial presence at many points, particularly at a certain juncture where Levett is very, very vulnerable…

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Allingham’s characterisation is also outstanding – from the poor, damaged lads in the band, through the Canon’s vindictive neighbour, to vulnerable Meg, all are real and convincing and alive; in fact, they’re almost larger than life in places, particularly Charlie Luke, the detective. The pacing of the story is carefully planned and the tale doesn’t rush to the climax, but steadily builds up, which is much more effective.

I found myself completely gripped by this book, caught up in the atmosphere and the tension. This was not a traditional cosy Golden Age murder mystery, but more of a thriller, and thrilling it certainly was, full of exemplary writing and wonderful atmosphere. On the front of my edition crime writer and historian Julian Symons called it “the best of all her works” – and you can really understand why!