When beautiful war widow Meg Elginbrodde is on the eve of her wedding to Geoffrey Levitt, she receives threatening and disturbing photographs. They supposedly depict her husband, Martin Elginbrodde, who died during World War II. The mysterious sender threatens to make it known that she intends to commit bigamy if she goes through with her impending second marriage.
Confused and skeptical about the situation, she meets with her cousin Albert Campion and his police contact, Charles Luke, at a train station where she is supposed to reunite with Martin. The whole situation is an elaborate hoax perpetrated by a small-time crook, Duds. The one niggling detail is that Duds is wearing Martin’s coat, and George Levitt can’t figure out how he could have managed to steal it from Meg’s father’s house.
Duds are soon out on bail, and George Levitt decides to tail him and see if there is any truth to Martin’s supposed resurrection. While trailing Duds, George Levitt and Dud are attacked by a large group of men.
The police have moved on from the minor case surrounding Martin Elginbrodde to trying to capture escaped dangerous criminal Jack Havoc, who has presumably killed four people in London. When Albert Campion and Charles Luke are called out to a killing in an alley: they recognize the man as Duds. Campion and Luke attempt to find George Levitt to hear his alibi, but he has gone missing. George is in the hands of a band of deadly and mysterious criminals who work for the dangerous Jack Havoc.
Jack Havoc and his band of misfits hope to get hold of a map supposedly found by Martin Elginbrodde, which details its way to a cache of treasure hoarded during World War II. They believe Meg Elginbrodde has the map and will do anything and kill anyone who gets in their way.
As a dense, choking fog envelopes the city of London, the deadly animal of Jack Havoc strikes.
The mystery setup is quite enticing, and I was really enjoying myself, but my enjoyment of the story quickly soured. One of the main themes hammered over and over in the book is the link between physical & mental disabilities and the proclivity towards moral reprobation and crime. This is a common unsavory theme for books during the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, and as a disabled woman, I was disgusted. While others may feel like Allingham was attempting to show the denigration of people on the margins of society, I feel like she was happily participating and perpetuating stereotypes about the disabled. It greatly affected my enjoyment of the story.
That major flaw aside, it’s a thrilling, suspenseful story. World War II has hardened the vague affable Albert Campion of the early novels. He is shrewd and quick-witted and no longer hews to the conventions of a gentleman detective; he no longer employs Lugg to do his dirty work but does it himself.
The more mature Albert Campion is necessary to meet the depravity of a vicious serial killer. While earlier Campion books had killers who murdered multiple people, this is the first Allingham book where the villain kills because he has no compunction for human life, not because a person threatens to expose a crime. It’s a change in tone and reflects how the mystery genre changed in the 1950s.
That’s not to say it is unrecognizable from Allingham’s earlier works- it is still lyrically and masterfully written. The Tiger in the Smoke has many of her signatures, a slow burn, twists that upend previous assumptions, the ability for the story to turn on a dime, and a satisfying conclusion. I would say it is a richer version of her earlier style, free of the hampering conventions of the Golden Age.
This is a difficult book to recommend. I think that many people will not like it, I think many people will like it and recognize that it is deeply flawed, and some people will love it. If you have read this far and it sounds interesting, then you should give it a go. If you haven’t read Margery Allingham before…this is going to be a challenging read. You won’t get a good handle on Albert Campion, there are lengthy, discursive asides and side quests, and it almost feels like two novels smashed into one. Overall, not a favorite of mine.
What are your opinions of The Tiger in the Smoke? Did you like Margery Allingham’s handling of a serial killer villain? Who would you recommend this book to? I’ve read this book a few times in preparation for this review, and I still feel like I am grappling with the book. You can get a cop of The Tiger in the Smoke from Amazon here.