Sunday, 15 May 2011

"The Tiger in the Smoke" by Margery Allingham

It remains a mystery to me how and why Agatha Christie remains in everyday view when several of her contemporaries who were in my humble opinion better writers have been consigned to the bookends of oblivion. My Christmas Quiz this year, for example, revealed the sad truth that many intelligent, well-educated people had never heard of Edmind Crispin, Josephine Tey, Ngaio Marsh or Margery Allingham. Whisper it gently, but some had never even heard of Dorothy L. Sayers. Oh dear.

For anyone wanting to make the acquaintance of Margery Allingham, and Campion, the detective who features in most of her later works, then The Tiger in the Smoke is as good a place as any to start. In fact, it is by common consent her best book, transcending the genre of a detective story to become a full-blown thriller in the tradition of John Buchan or Eric Ambler. In fact, it is arguably even more than this. Many Allingham fans contend that it is in fact a pukka novel by virtue of its deep characterisation and fine prose style.

It is difficult to describe the plot without giving too much away. A seemingly inexplicable murder is linked to a universally feared man recently released from prison. The action revolves around the household of an eccentric clergyman, and is part love story and part feminist novel, the denouement relying heavily on the courage of the central female character acting alone.

Allingham was the professional writer non plus ultra. Both parents were writers and so were several generations of ancestors on both sides of the family. She is said to have received her first writer's fee at the age of eight for a story in a children's magazine. According to the Margery Allingham Society, she saw a detective story as a box with four sides: a murder, a mystery, an enquiry, and a conclusion with an element of satisfaction about it. Within this box she crafted roughly twenty full length whodunits as well as many short stories. Some, particularly the early ones where the Campion character is still maturing and can be frankly slightly irritating from time to time, seem a little dated and imperfect. Others, particularly this one, are masterpieces.


Karyn said...

Her novel The Crime at Black Dudley sits here on my desk, one of the books I am thinking of reading next. Would you assess that as one of her good books, or one of the slightly irritating ones?

The only time I have previously tried to read a Margery Allingham book was on a flight between London and Australia, while caring for three young children, and I soon lost track of the story. Not the fairest test, I know, but I’ve hesitated ever since in picking another one up.

Pursewarden said...

Worth reading if only for historical interest, since I think that is the very first Campion book.

Cristina (Rochester Reader) said...

Thank you for recommending this book. I had heard of all the mystery authors you listed but hadn't read any of them with the exception of Sayers - and that is a recent pleasurable discovery. I intend to rectify the oversight soon.