CONVENTIONAL crime novels are based on the presence of a mystery to be solved, and The Tiger in the Smoke is no exception. This novel is anything but conventional, however, because the mystery that drives the plot keeps changing.
In the first two chapters, we are puzzling over mysterious photographs of Meg Elginbrodde’s husband, Martin, who is supposed to have been killed in the Second World War. By chapter three, the novel has become a whodunnit: a dead body is slumped in an alleyway. In no time at all, we are pretty sure who the murderer is, and Allingham focuses on a new mystery: the identity of a ruthless criminal, Jack Havoc, who seems to have come out of nowhere.
As we ponder the question of Jack and his origins, a further mystery emerges: the possibility of hidden treasure in a house on the French coast. Meg, her fiancé, Geoffrey, and the police rush to discover the treasure, accelerating the narrative towards its conclusion.
Although religion has already featured in the story, particularly in the saintly figure of Canon Avril (Meg’s father) it is only in the final three chapters that we realise that a religious question is the fulcrum of the entire novel.
It is said that there are two parts to any story: “the end, and everything else”, and The Tiger in the Smoke exemplifies that adage. In the closing pages, when the treasure is uncovered, we realise that the ending of the story contains the key to unlock The Tiger in the Smoke: this is not a crime novel at all, but a metaphysical allegory seeking to answer arguably the greatest mystery of all: how good can conquer evil.
Evil is represented by the charismatic villain, Havoc, who (like Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost) is easily the most fascinating protagonist. Havoc is centre-stage in all of the novel’s most engaging scenes: his descent into the London cellar where his band of criminals are holed up; his encounter with Canon Avril in the Church of St Peter’s of the Gate; and his appearance at the site of the treasure in Sainte-Odile-sur-Mer.
Like Darth Vader or Hannibal Lector, Havoc is an archetype of evil, apparently without virtue and capable of anything. But Allingham leaves the question of his redemption open: Avril engages with Havoc believing in the possibility of his redemption, and, as a result, Havoc’s violence does appear restrained; and, after the shock of discovering the treasure, Havoc slips symbolically over a cliff into a pool that is “quiet and still”. If Havoc is redeemed, Allingham is clear why: it is Avril’s gentle virtue and Meg’s innocent, fragile beauty that pull him back from damnation.
As we get to know Havoc, we discover that he has his own religion, of sorts: the science of luck, a nihilistic vision of life as a random sequence of chances. The trick, at every fork in the road, is to choose the more advantageous path. This “religion” serves Havoc well, at least until he and Meg discover the treasure. The question is whether Havoc’s luck eventually runs out, or whether, in the final pages of the novel, a stroke of grace steers him on to the path to salvation.
Period details abound in the novel, from Meg’s “Dior ensemble” to the quaint 1950s vocabulary: people are frequently described as “queer”, “gay”, “rum”, and “dashing”. Readers may baulk, however, at Allingham’s depiction of women as “frail” and “silly”. When Meg shows the strength to dig up the treasure, Allingham comments that “it was queer to find it [strength] in a girl.” When Havoc has his band of criminals enthralled, Allingham likens them to “a crowd of impressionable girls”.
For any book-group members keen to go the extra mile, Philip Pullman’s Ruby in the Smoke would make an excellent companion piece. At the centre of Pullman’s novel is another paradigm of evil (the triad leader Ah-Ling), and a treasure hunt (this time for a ruby). But a crucial difference is the depiction of women. In Pullman’s novel, the all-too-capable heroine is a young woman.
More important, arguably, than the descriptive details of the novel, are the many allegorical components. If Havoc is evil, the characters trying to stop him are all archetypes of virtue. Canon Avril is gentle and compassionate, Meg is flawlessly beautiful, Geoffrey shows himself to be courageous, Albert Campion and Charles Luke are salt-of-the-earth coppers whose only delight is in putting criminals behind bars. Allingham evokes the grotesqueness of evil in Havoc’s motley gang of criminals.
But the most pervasive motif in the novel is the “abominable” fog that blankets London: a symbol of the insidiousness of evil. And, when Canon Avril leads the police expertly through the fog, Allingham is showing us his moral and religious leadership rather than his knowledge of the A to Z.
The 1956 film of the The Tiger in the Smoke, starring Donald Sinden, although excellent in its depiction of the fog that floats into every house whenever a door is opened, strips the story of its allegorical references and of its religious depth. But the book remains a surprising, enigmatic, dark, and unclassifiable novel, and will appeal to readers who like their fiction to pack some philosophical and religious punch.
The Revd Dr Hugh Rayment-Pickard is a co-founder of the charity IntoUniversity.
The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham is published by Vintage at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.10); 978-1-78470-159-8.
THE TIGER IN THE SMOKE — SOME QUESTIONS
- “The fog was like a saffron blanket soaked in ice-water”. In what ways is the weather significant to the plot of The Tiger?
- “Evil be thou my Good”. What did you make of Allingham’s exploration of the notions of good and evil?
- What did you make of the relationship between Canon Avril and Jack Havoc, and their scene together in the church?
- “We choose our own compulsions. Our souls are our own.” What part is played by choice in the novel?
- How did the sense of place — in particular, Allingham’s portrayal of the many faces of London — affect your reading?
- Cruelty comes from many characters in this novel. What are the motivations for their cruelty?
- How does the recent fact of the Second World War affect the novel and its characters?
- “An almighty affront of noise”. How did you respond to the street band? Can we find any sympathy for these characters?
- What part do you think Geoffrey Levett plays in the novel?
- “You never said anything straight.” What did you think of Allingham’s portrayal of truth and disguise?
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 5 January 2018, we will feature our next book Mr Mac and Me by Esther Freud. It is published by Bloomsbury at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.10); 978-1-4088-5721-2.
The daughter of the painter Lucian Freud and Bernardine Coverley, Esther Freud trained and worked as an actress before turning to writing. She is best known for her heavily autobiographical first novel, Hideous Kinky (1992), which was shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys prize, and made into a feature film starring Kate Winslet. In 1993, she was named as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Writers.
Freud has now written a total of eight novels, of which Mr Mac & Me (2014) is the most recent. She lives with her husband and three children in London and Walberswick, Suffolk.
On the Suffolk coast, at the outbreak of the First World War, 13-year-old Tommy Maggs spends his days copying out lessons in Mr Runnicle’s school, and drawing boats in the margins of his paper. When he meets Mr Mac, he finds a kind man who shows interest in his love of drawing, but also a mysterious figure who uses spyglasses and owns German books.
In Mr Mac and Me, Tommy narrates the story of his time with “Mr Mac”, the real-life Scottish architect and artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh, whose year living in Walberswick ended in tragic circumstances when he was incarcerated for two days on suspicion of being a German spy.
Books for the next two months:
February: Anatomy of a Soldier by Harry Parker.
March: The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett.