First published: UK, Chatto & Windus, 1958; US, Doubleday, 1958, as Tether’s End
Two gods are blindfolded in mythology – Love and Justice. Miss Allingham, whose ‘Tiger in the Smoke’ is one of the most exciting novels of recent years, now shows the strange logic which, even in a modern world, links the two sightless deities. More than a thriller, this razor-swift story deals movingly with the problem of a woman who hid her eyes against an inevitable but sinister truth.
It begins with murder on a rainy night in a cul-de-sac off London theatreland. Who were the strange couple in the country bus, certain witnesses of the crime? Miss Allingham’s Inspector Luke, and of course Mr. Campion, find links between this and other killings: a left hand glove, a lizard skin lettercase and a trail which leads to a Museum of oddities and a blood chilling dump in the East End.
Her new characters, the lovable Polly, the tough young Richard with his charming Annabelle and, for Allingham connoisseurs, Mr Vick the barber, are no less vivid than the episodes; whilst the murderer himself is a remarkable study of the ruthless vanity and self-deception of the criminal mind.
Hide My Eyes will confirm the author’s mastery as a story teller who, to quote the Sunday Times ‘has precious few peers and no superiors’.
An extraordinary achievement. Stylish, sophisticated and intelligent. What does one expect from Margery Allingham? Really good writing, vivid characters, a sense of place and a clever, inevitable plot. This has all of them in plenty. It’s nominally a detective story – Superintendent Luke believes that various unsolved murders (including the one in the brilliantly sinister opening chapter) are the work of the same hand, clad in an imitation pigskin glove – but the book is really an exploration of evil and self-deception manifest in one of Allingham’s best murderers, Jeremy Hawker.
Hawker is something less than human. “A well-trained animal without imagination or moral sense”, Hawker is – in the full and horrible sense of the word – a hollow man, devoid of identity and empathy. One of the most frightening things about him is his pride that
“I never let anything tear the skin. I’ve never been faintly fond of anything or of anybody in my life.” He spoke lightly but with satisfaction. “I’m deadly serious about this. I spotted the plain mechanical truth of it as a child. You could almost call it the Chad-Horder discovery. Any kind of affection is a solvent. It melts and adulterates the subject and by indulging it he loses his identity and hence his efficiency. By keeping myself to myself in the face of every conceivable attack I have remained successful, bright, and indestructible. It’s a simple recipe for a hundred per cent success…”
We get some idea of why Hawker is the way he is (much more satisfying than the average detective story, where Wilberforce Arkwright, lovingly composed of pure cardboard, wakes up bright and early one morning with nothing on his mind but the murder of his rich uncle). He was an orphan brought up by unloving grandparents in an atmosphere of “suppressed dirt, suppressed starvation, and a soul-chilling atmosphere of superiority to the rest of the ignorant herd” – the perfect atmosphere for the rearing of a clever, charming and callous pathological liar, a chameleon with a number of aliases.
Hawker’s downfall comes in the form of the one person for whom he has any shred of affection: Margaret (Polly) Tassie, who loves him like a mother and who will
“forgive him without question, whatever he’s done to her and however high we hang him. And he knows it. It’s no use you blaming her. She can’t help herself. She’s a vehicle. That’s Disinterested Love, chum, a force, like nuclear energy. It’s absolute.”
In one of Allingham’s most extraordinary pieces of writing, surpassing the discussion between Jack Havoc and Canon Avril in The Tiger in the Smoke, we see his callousness ranged against her blind love, as he is driven by fear to attempt the murder of the only person whom he loves. Although Polly pleads with him not to, she is pleading not for her life but for his soul.
“I am the last thing you love,” she said thickly, struggling with the drug as its waves broke over her. “If…you…kill me, Gerry, you will lose contact with…your kind. There’ll be nothing…to keep you alive. You’ll wither like a leaf off a tree.”
In the end, Gerry is reduced to nothing. He has lost his identity and become absolute negation, nakedness searching for its soul.
The notion that something a little less than a man might be trembling there, struggling feebly to wrap itself in the shreds of a false and shameful identity, which had been casually created for it by Richard himself, was something quite outside his imagination. It was an aspect of hell, which, mercifully, was not in his comprehension.
This is Allingham’s darkest book – a novel devoid of humour and eccentricities, but, in its gripping grimness, its penetration into character and its presentation of a dilapidated and broken-down London of decay and disuse (museum, club and junkyard), is unparalleled. Not an enjoyable book, perhaps, but extraordinary nonetheless.
Observer (Maurice Richardson, 5th October 1958):
Ambitious elaborate study of a multiple-murderer at work and on the run. Gerry has Heath’s good looks and hearty manic con-man’s façade, Haigh’s cold cupidity and neat dispositions, plus some ingenious cover of his own featuring a bizarre little museum. Altogether a most strenuous and commendable attempt to pull a coup in the superior macabre vein. It doesn’t quite come off, partly because the construction is too loose to support so many shifts of emphasis, partly because the police and Mr. Campion don’t convince. But there are some good scenes, and whenever Gerry is on-stage you get a pricking in the thumbs.
New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 8th November 1958):
Followers of Miss Allingham’s pack under her beloved MFH Campion have to abandon hunting by scent: their quarry is always in full view. In Hide My Eyes a singularly wicked plausible young man, who murders right and left for small sums of money, is brought to book through his need of a mother-substitute in the shape of a sweet old lady. One can hardly blame Miss Allingham for forsaking the cramping medium of detection when she can indulge her sentimental aptitude so freely and effectively in the wide open spaces of the crime novel.
Manchester Guardian (Francis Iles, 14th November 1958):
Of the Old Reliables, Christopher Bush comes up this month with The Case of the Running Man, as neatly a fashioned a puzzle as Ludovic Travers has ever tackled; and Rex Stout is even more wise-cracking than usual in If Death Ever Slept, a basically simple plot cunningly made to appear complicated. Miss Margery Allingham, on the other hand, makes no attempt to complicate her Hide My Eyes, for this writer an unusually straightforward little thriller, with the exaggerations, coincidences, and wild improbabilities of human behaviour on which she too often relies toned down almost to nothingness.