The Tiger in the Smoke

Margery Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke (1952) is not only one of her greatest books, and possibly her best, but one of the true masterpieces of British mystery fiction. It is one of those books to which I am always somewhat nervous to return in case in should prove that my memory has played me false, that it is not really that good, that a re-reading will see its lustre dimmed, its quality lessened. And although I am the owner of the Campion Yahoo list (see right for link) I now rarely participate in the monthly reads – nor unfortunately does anyone else very much! But recently two questions have been asked there – the first concerning Allingham’s treatment of madness and evil (in which respect Tiger is an essential text) and the second concerning Campion’s various motivations, which have sparked my interest and led me to re-read this book, which happened to be on the list’s monthly schedule for May. I was delighted to find that memory had in no way played me false; indeed, on the contrary, the book was even better, richer and finer than I had recalled.

Any attempt at reducing Tiger to its plot will miserably fail to start to convey the book’s nature. Although the opening of the book establishes a genuinely interesting plot puzzle, at its core are three great characters – Jack Havoc, the book’s criminal killer, Canon Avril, his spiritual opposite, and London itself shrouded in the deepest fog it has known for years. Allingham’s magnificent descriptive writing is evident from the very first paragraph…

‘The fog was like a saffron blanket soaked in ice-water. It had hung over London all day and was beginning to descend. The sky was yellow as a duster and the rest was a granular black, overprinted in grey and lightened by occasional slivers of bright fish colour as a policeman turned in his wet cape.’ (page 9, Penguin Edition to which all page references will refer).

The fog is of course metaphor for the confusion in which the characters are enveloped, but it is also a physical presence in the book, changing the geography, making everything slow down as people are forced to grope their way through it, making the familiar unfamiliar, and providing a perfect setting in which Havoc can leave his trail of death.

In addition to the central characters there are, as almost always in Allingham, a magnificent supporting cast. And here we need instantly to call attention to the fact that Campion himself, her series detective, is in this book just a part of that supporting cast. This is one of many ways in which Allingham was prepared to experiment and use Campion in a variety of roles (as is shown in very different ways in such earlier books as Dancers in Mourning where his actions are equivocal to say the least, or  Traitors Purse where he spends the first half of the book in a state of amnesia). Here he is involved because Canon Avril is his uncle and Meg Elginbrodde, Avril’s daughter, is at the centre of the entire plot; this then is his motivation – family loyalty and affection. Certainly the glimpses we get of Campion, his wife Amanda, their son and Lugg his employee (finding the right word to describe Lugg is near impossible – servant certainly has quite the wrong connotations) are all satisfying to the Allingham enthusiast; most affecting of all are Campion’s reflections on his emotions as a father. All of them are highly engaging characters. But none is central to Tiger. Nor even is Charlie Luke the vibrant policeman who leads the hunt for Havoc, brilliant as Allingham’s descriptions of his raw energy are. Nor are the other policeman from Campion’s past – Oates and Yeo – who re-appear here.

Apart from these series regulars we also have two extraordinarily vivid groups of characters set in opposition to one another. On the one hand are the street gang of minor villains and misfits who make a miserable living under the guidance and direction of the far more menacing albino Tiddy Doll. The den in which these thieves congregate is of course highly Dickensian (as indeed are many aspects of the novel) but these thieves have an individuality and life all of their own. Set against this group are those who live either with Canon Avril in his large but obscure rectory, or nearby in St Petersgate Square; the sporting journalist, Sam, the elderly Talismans and their watchful and responsible granddaughter Emily and others. Every character is drawn with precision and plays their role both within the plot and as part of the novel’s balance and composition.

But at the very heart we come back always to Jack Havoc and Canon Avril; evil and good if we are to take them as such. Really the risks, the daring, of Allingham’s writing here, particularly in the climactic meeting of the two (the actual plot is resolved in the final chapters but this confrontation is the book’s centre), is extraordinary. So let us focus on Havoc and the question of madness and evil. Now the characters within the book are very explicit about this…

” ‘Havoc is a truly wicked man’ he [Oates] said at last. ‘In all my experience I’ve only met three……I thought at one time that Haigh was going to qualify, but when I met him and talked with him he didn’t, quite. He was mentally deformed. There was a sense missing there. The thing I’m talking about is rather different. I can’t describe it but you’ll recognize it when you see it, if you have time. It’s like seeing Death for the first time.’  “(page 64)

“….Who is he? A maniac?’

‘Not if I know it.’ Luke was softly ferocious. ‘No psychiatrist is going to get him off through that door.’ ” (page 117)

‘I don’t think he’s mad,’ said Amanda…………………’He just wants the treasure. That may be wrong, but it’s not insane’ (page 166)

‘Oates had been right, as usually was, the old sinner. The fellow was that rarity, a genuinely wicked man. Amanda had spotted it. He was no lunatic, no unfortunate betrayed by disease or circumstance, but a much more scarce and dangerous beast, the rogue which every herd throws up from time to time. Campion was uneasy. The ancient smell of evil, acrid and potent as the stench of fever, came creeping through the gentle house to him, defiling as it passed.’ (page 169).

So the fact of Havoc’s evil as against his madness is clearly attested by four characters, all of whom we are supposed to trust – Oates, Luke, Amanda and, in summation, Campion. But are these judgements which the reader should accept? Asking this question leads us to a deeper analysis and reading. For Allingham does not evade the issue by making Havoc a non-appearing presence. It is true that he does not appear in person until about half way through(there are only  215 pages – Tiger is a book of concentrated power) the book. Of course the reader is well aware by this point that he has been the mainspring behind the action, has viciously murdered four innocent people, and his presence has been most menacingly portrayed as his ‘spoor’ of evil spreads across the book. In many ways his actual appearance is the critical test for Allingham – can Havoc’s actuality live up to his legend? In some ways I suppose it does not, in that the unrevealed will be always more potent as an element of menace; but Havoc’s appearance, actions, speeches and ultimately thoughts have a complexity and fascination which more than compensate for the loss of mystery. Here is how he expounds his philosophy to Tiddy Doll and the other leading sub-villains…

‘Religion nuts! This is the thing religion goes soft on. Call it the Science of Luck, that’s my name for it. There’s only two rules in it: watch all the time and never do the soft thing. I’ve stuck to that and it’s given me power’ (page 149).

None of his listeners have any idea what he is talking about (as to a lesser extent none of those surrounding Canon Avril, with the partial exception of his daughter, fully understand him) of course. And nor perhaps at this stage does the reader. Let us switch to Avril and Campion’s reply when he asked if he is worried about his safety….

‘No. Quite frankly, I feel to do that would be presumptuous. Someone else looks after Uncle Hubert.’ (page 174)

Here at least we can be clear of Campion’s meaning, which is theological not philosophical – Avril is protected by God.

With this background we can proceed to the climax. Let me briefly sketch the scene – Avril has slipped out of his house at night and gone to confront Havoc, whom he knows will be in the church, alone ; he knows that his own death is the likely result but he still goes ahead. It is now necessary to quote a fairly large chunk of their dialogue…

” ‘For God’s sake,’ said the agonized voice behind him, ‘why the hell did you come?

‘I don’t know,’ said Avril, and struggled on, making the truth as clear as he could. ‘All I can tell you is, that greatly against my will I had to. All today every small thing has conspired to bring me here. I have known something like it to happen before, and I believe that if I have not been misled by stupidness or weakness of my own I shall see why eventually.’

To his amazement, the explanation which to himself sounded utterly inadequate and unsatisfactory, appeared to be understood. He heard the man behind catch his breath.

‘That’s it,’ said Havoc, and his voice was natural. ‘That’s it. The same thing happened to me. Do you know what that is, you poor old bletherer? That’s the Science of Luck. It works every time.’

Now it was Avril’s turn to understand and he was frightened out of his wits.

‘The Science of Luck,’ he said cautiously. ‘You watch, do you? That takes a lot of self-discipline.’

………………………………’I watch for every opportunity and I never do the soft thing. That’s why I succeed.’

Avril was silent for a long time. ‘It is the fashion,’ he said at last. ‘You’ve been reading Frenchmen, I suppose? Or no, no, perhaps you haven’t. How absurd of me.

…..(Havoc) ‘That’s my name for it. What’s its real name?’

‘The Pursuit of Death’ ” (pages 196-7)

The scene proceeds climaxing with Avril refusing to swear that he will not betray Havoc, virtually forcing the latter to stab him. The fact that Havoc fails to kill him is attributed by Luke to ‘God looking after His own’ (page 201) but Allingham also attributes it to a moment of doubt in Havoc’s mind. I have quoted the scene at length for several reasons. First to show just how strange a book Tiger is considered as a mystery [1]; just how daring and unconventional. Those who are unacquainted with British Golden Age mystery writing will just have to take it on my assurance – this is very weird stuff for the genre! Secondly, how even in a moment like this Allingham, characteristically, sends herself and the scene up by inserting a comic note (the ‘Frenchmen’ – I am guessing she means the Existentialists who would have been the prominent French thinkers de jour, but I could be quite wrong). But thirdly of course how this passage leads us to the heart of the book’s philosophy/theology and the questions it raises. For what we must note is that these two central characters accept and validate each other in a way that none of the book’s other characters come close to doing. At the heart of their belief systems is an acceptance of a providential ordering of the world – for Avril God’s ordering, for Havoc the ‘Science of Luck’.

Now this is no place to become too meta-physical (I will do that in a minute!). I want to return to the question of evil and madness. If we stand back and say that Havoc lives his life according to a rigid belief in the ‘Science of Luck’ then I would certainly say that he is mad. Mad in the sense in being delusional. Because I have no hesitation in saying that the whole idea is a load of — well rubbish to be polite. Equally I would regard Avril as more than a little bonkers – as his actions here demonstrate. Of course you can be mad and bad, or mad and good, or, as we most of us are, a little of all three. That’s not the point as we are considering a specific question about the weighting of madness and evil in the character of Havoc as Allingham draws it; my suggestion is that this scene and such of Havoc’s interiority as we are shown do not lead to the same simple judgement which other characters in the novel make. There is a further fascinating meta-fictional speculation which might be developed here : quite apart from the considerations of  Antinomianism which always rear their head where Predestination is concerned (and one might argue that Havoc is an extreme form of Antinomianism in action) there is also the fact it is peculiarly destructive of the premises on which the mystery novel stands – in a predestined world whether a crime was solved or not would of course be a matter of predestination! Such arguments do tend towards the reductio ad absurdam but they are certainly undermining of the traditional approach of the detective. Allingham might have dismissed this as fanciful nonsense but the absence of Campion as a major force in the book and the comparative ineffectiveness of the police efforts are necessary in order that even the idea of this peculiar theological framework can be given room.

It is also worth observing that in the remainder of the novel Allingham tends to step back from this mysticism. Chapter 18 turns into police procedural mode – although ‘procedural’ is altogether too dull a description of any action in which Luke is involved. In the final Chapter – 19 – the action opens with Campion indulging in that flippant dialogue which springs straight from his 1930’s persona (in turn owing a great deal to Dornford Yates – this might be Berry and Co. on one of their French adventures); then we have a final second climax between Havoc and Meg, in certain ways a reprise in a minor key of that between Havoc and Avril, where she has no idea who he is, either in terms of being Jack Havoc, or that Havoc is in fact Johnny Cash, her childhood acquaintance ,who destroyed her toy theatre to get hold of the glitter. For all its power this is a swing back to the conventional, with Havoc as the evil little boy who has matured into a monster. The book is almost marred but Allingham saves herself by the magnificent concluding paragraphs centred on Havoc himself and his final self-destruction.

Concentrating in this way on a particular question inevitably distorts the book and gives a very wrong impression. The Tiger in the Smoke can be read in a number of ways and in the first place it is a brilliant thriller, in which an initial intriguing mystery leads ever into ever deeper waters. Every element of good mystery writing – plot, pace, narration, characterisation, location writing, humour – is present, but there are in addition those almost intangible factors which elevate the good to the great. In large part I think these are connected to the risk taking – the philosophical speculation, the assignation of a back-seat to the lead series character, the use of the fog as both physical device and over-arching metaphor, the creation and use of two unrealistic central characters – which Allingham was willing to attempt. Tiger in the Smoke shows a great mystery novelist at the very height of her powers trying to see just how far those powers would stretch.


1. In fact if Tiger in the Smoke is reminiscent of anything it is of Graham Greene and in particular Brighton Rock (1938). A comparison between the comparative theologies and between Pinkie Brown and Jack Havoc would make for a fascinating exercise.

7 thoughts on “The Tiger in the Smoke

  1. nick2209

    A fascinating comment from Lesley Simpson on the AlbertCampion list (see right for link)…

    >>One last word on Tiger. I remember being slightly surprised by Jack Havoc’s end in that he didn’t face a formal punishment in the book but just died quietly. Then recently I read Marge’s intro to The Mysterious Mr. Campion which includes this bit:

    “My own bother is different. Because I am a peculiarly slow writer even by the standards of my own trade, my difficulty is in drawing villains. You have only got to think for a moment how many hours I have got to spend with an unpleasant character to appreciate why even the dreariest
    people in Mr Campion’s circle tend to grow redeeming features. I grew very worried about this serious defect in my talent some years ago, and in a book called The Tiger in the Smoke I made a terrific effort to achieve a really evil fellow. Even so I let him slip through Luke’s fingers — I knew him so well I got sorry for him you see — and to my dismay that had a shattering effect on Luke. Just lately, therefore, I’ve been concentrating on someone who is even more of a bad hat. He is in my book called Hide My Eyes which won’t be out until the autumn, but I believe I have really done it this time and Luke is happier now. It has entailed spending an awful lot of time with a terrifying person though, ”

    I do prefer Hide to Tiger. It had a far greater impact on me. I think the villain is far more chilling, probably because outwardly he is much more normal. I could imagine socializing with him without any hint of what’s underneath, whereas if I met Havoc in the street I’d run a mile.<>That’s fascinating Lesley and many thanks for the quote. I think it would have been quite impossible for Havoc to have been tamely captured by the police as that would have undermined the central confrontation which is not with Luke at all, but with the Canon as I have argued. I can see the point you make about Hide (and will try and re-read that in August) but my own preference is definitely for Tiger exactly because of Havoc’s symbolic force – there is a non- or anti- realism about Tiger which for me gives it that special quality.<<

  2. nick2209

    Those who wish for a far more thorough and detailed analysis of Tiger (and indeed the whole Allingham canon) are advised to join the Margery Allingham Society and thereby obtain their magazine The Bottle Street Gazette. Along with many other good things it so happens that the Spring 2009 edition contains Roger Johnson’s Commentary on Tiger in the Smoke (part of a series covering each novel). This Commentary is an invaluable aid to anyone wishing to consider the book in depth.

    One fascinating point Roger makes is that Graham Greene hated the book ; Greene wrote ‘The L’s had lent me Tiger in the Smoke – a most absurd unreal story by Margery Allingham. It didn’t even pass the time; it was an irritation.’ (In Search of a Character;Two African Journals by Graham Greene 1961). My own suspicion about this is that he probably felt it all went a bit too close to what Greene regarded as his patch! (and that Jack Havoc is a rather more compelling and menacing figure than Pinky in Brighton Rock).

    The Margery Allingham Society’s website can be found at for anyone interested in joining.

  3. Pingback: ‘The sky was yellow as a duster…’ Margery Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

  4. Well written. “TIGER” is indeed a great read which transcends it’s category (ie a mystery).

    Maybe some will read it to also get a glimpse of post WW 2 London…and the people good…and evil…within.

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