(Penguin 1975, originally published 1952)
Meg Elginbrodde, recently engaged to Geoffrey Levett, has been a war widow for five years after her husband Martin was killed in France. Recently, however, photographs have been turning up, both in illustrated papers and sent to her, of a man who looks startlingly like Martin. Is Martin still alive after all? She has brought her problem to Albert Campion, who is investigating along with the police, including the formidable Charles Luke (who was first introduced to the Campion books in More Work for the Undertaker). But instead of trying to contact Meg, the man immediately flees when he spots the forces of the Law: although he’s later arrested, he’s evidently afraid of something or someone which he won’t name.
It’s not long before Geoffrey inadvertently gets mixed up with a old soldiers’ band, and Meg’s problem is involved with the vicious (and well-planned) escape from prison of Jack Havoc, of whom Assistant Commissioner Stanislaus Oates (one of Campion’s long-time associates) says: ‘Havoc is a truly wicked man’ – and he should know.
It turns out that Martin’s reappearance and Havoc’s prison break are connected, and the mystery of Havoc’s past is also discovered to be more closely connected with Meg and her family than it seems at first.
Allingham’s later Albert Campion books steered away from the high-jinks and light-hearted tone of the earlier books, although there are moments of humour even in this, one of her darker works. The plot – not so much a detective novel as a thriller – works beautifully, and the book is peopled with very vivid characters. Allingham has a real gift for characterisation in few words, cutting to their essence and making their differences known – the sad beggars of the band, for example, are not one lumpish mass, but individual characters with their own behaviour and preoccupations. She also portrays the child’s mindset very well, too, with their – to adult eyes – odd obsessions and fears.
The atmosphere of Tiger in the Smoke is one of the strongest things about the novel, though, even given the strong characterisation. It’s set in November, in a very vividly realised London, during one of the worst fogs of living memory: in this creeping atmosphere of unreality and intangibility, the menace of Jack Havoc carving his way through London in his search for “treasure”.
‘That man is killing mad,’ [Luke] rattled on savagely. ‘He’s knifing right and left as though human life had no value and any poor beast who gets in his way had no right to exist.’
Allingham almost has some sympathy for Havoc, and there are a couple of very powerful and affecting scenes in which he is faced with quite different outlooks on life. He’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. Allingham can conjure up unpleasantness with a few phrases, such as the callous trick played on Geoffrey when he’s strapped into a wheelchair and can’t move. She can also convey real goodness and strength, as is evident in her portrayal of Canon Avril, Meg’s father, whose charity and forgiveness does not mean that he’s weak.
Tiger in the Smoke is commonly reported as Allingham’s best work: I’d certainly agree. Thoroughly recommended.