The Tiger in the Smoke (Margery Allingham)

By Margery Allingham

First published: UK, Chatto & Windus, 1952; US, Doubleday, 1952

Blurb (UK)

Allingham - The Tiger in the Smoke.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

Miss Allingham’s “Mr. Campion” stories have entertained many hundred thousand readers and her admirable style has rejoiced the critic and the purist.  In The Tiger in the Smoke she has written both a novel of remarkable range and quality, and a book which makes the usual “suspense story” read like a parish magazine.  The “tiger” is Jack Havoc.  When he breaks out of jail his path cuts across the lives of various Londoners, innocent and not so innocent: old Canon Avril, his charming daughter and her fiancé; Mr. Campion and Chief Inspector Luke, Lugg and Amanda; that sinister doer of good works, Mrs. Cash, and Doll the albino, with his macabre band of street musicians.  These are superb character studies, drawn against the brilliantly realised landscape and atmosphere of “the smoke”; faded squares of shabby-genteel houses, furtive alleys, flaring pub windows in the raucous streets.  Almost more striking, perhaps, than Miss Allingham’s power of characterization and her ability to set the scene is her supreme gift of story telling.  The tension is almost agonising; in Miss Allingham’s masterly hands the reader shares every tremor of excitement and suspense up to the final and breathtaking climax.

My review

Despite the blurb and critical praise, this late novel is really no more than a thriller, not a “crime novel”. As a thriller, it is quite successful, with some notably tense scenes in the London fog, although the finish on the French cliffs makes very little impact, and the plot, with its mixture of albinos, hunchbacks and dwarves, psychopathic ex-Commandos, saintly canons, and buried treasure, is preposterous in the extreme. As a novel, it is less successful. Jack Havoc never comes across as the truly wicked man all the other character say he is, and the famous scene in the church is grossly over-rated. Thus, a rather pretentious return to the author’s early “plum pudding” approach combined with her late style, which is often very good but equally often requires close and careful reading to avoid headache (particularly in the scenes with the ghastly ex-service men).

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Richardson, 1st August 1952):


Miss Allingham has tried hard to write a really superior thriller, one in which the characters and their motives are as round and deep as those we might hope to find in a serious novel as opposed to an entertainment.  She has not succeeded – perhaps because she has tried too hard – but the result, if rather like an unevenly baked cake in which there are too many different kinds of fruit, is at least above the crime fiction average.  The Tiger is Jack Havoc, a homicidal ex-commando who escapes from prison, in search of hidden treasure, by killing an improbable psychiatrist and who interferes with a number of people, including old Canon Avril, who knew him when he was a boy, and gives him a lecture on the psychology of evil before being murdered by him, his daughter Meg, and her fiancé, Geoffrey.  Miss Allingham’s familiars, Campion and his amanuensis, Lugg, and Inspector Luke, play subsidiary rôles, introducing a rather alien touch of breeziness.  There is plenty of suspense, especially when Geoffrey is ingeniously kidnapped by a band of ex-servicemen, itinerant street musicians, led by an albino named Tiddy Doll, who is somehow not quite as sinister as he ought to be; but, the narrative is rather jerky and lacks any central focus.


Evening Standard:

A novel of character and suspense…immensely exciting…it establishes firmly the author’s claim to be number one for England in any crime fiction Test match.


Sunday Times:

A fine, richly-imagined drama…No mere thriller, but a Newer Arabian Nights.


Evening News:

Some vivid characterization, swift and allusive narrative, chilling incident; this is a thriller which burns with a hard gem-like flame.


Glasgow Herald:

The Tiger in the Smoke has a sense of tension and character creation of a high order…it is not merely a gripping story; it is a piece of fine novel writing.