I have just finished reading Margery Allingham’s 1952 crime novel, The Tiger in the Smoke, which I enjoyed very much. But I’m bugged by one thing: why does it seem so familiar.
I have not read this novel before. In fact, until a few weeks ago I had not read anything by Allingham. I have watched the TV dramatisations, with Peter Davison as Albert Campion and the incomparable Brian Glover as Magersfontein Lugg. Indeed, some I’ve watched several times (we’ve got about half of them on DVD). And it was after the most recent viewing that I thought I’d try reading some of Allingham’s books.
I began with Look to the Lady and Mystery Mile, both early Campion novels (he had previously appeared in Crime at Black Dudley, but was apparently not a central character in that novel, so Mystery Mile can be said to be the first proper Campion novel). Both of these books were among the stories dramatised on television, indeed what struck me about them was how closely the dramatisations followed the novels. But that was actually a bit of a problem, I wasn’t sure how much I enjoyed the novels because they reminded me of the rather charming TV programmes. So I thought I would try one of the books that had not been dramatised, and picked, more or less at random, this mid-period work.
Let me talk about the story for a moment. It is set probably a year or two before it was published, that is, in the rather austere post-war years. Except for what we might call a postscript, the whole story takes place over the course of just two days during the course of one of those notorious London fogs of the period. Campion, older now, married, and nowhere near as irritatingly vacant as he sometimes appeared in the early books, is clearly a central figure, but he is not the star of the show nor is he central to much of the action. In fact there isn’t really a star, our focus shifts across 7 or 8 central figures, dipping into their awareness, watching from their viewpoint for a moment, then shifting on to the next. Such shifts sometimes occur in mid-paragraph, which I think displays remarkable assurance on the part of the author. Remember, this is a popular crime novel, part of a well-established series already some 20 years old at this point, not exactly what the audience of contemporaries like Agatha Christie or even Dorothy L. Sayers might be used to.
Nor is the central story what we might expect. Meg Elginbrodde was a young war bride whose dashing husband was killed not long after. She is now about to marry again, to equally dashing Geoffrey Levett, but as the big day approaches she starts to receive photographs that seem to show her husband still alive. Campion, with Superintendant Luke of the Yard, manages to catch the man impersonating Major Elginbrodde, but before they can find out the reason for this bizarre impersonation, the man is killed. At the same time, a notorious and amoral criminal, known as Jack Havoc, has escaped from prison and, in a matter of hours, has already killed four people, though he seems to be searching for something connected to Elginbrodde. And while all this is going on, Levett tries his hand at a little detective work of his own, and gets himself kidnapped by a troop of petty criminals disguised a a street band of army veterans.
One of the things I had missed in the TV programmes but that becomes inescapable in the books is how central religion is to them. Not religion in any mystical sense (though there is an element of mysticism imbued in the pickled knight at the climax of Look to the Lady), but everyday C of E stuff where elderly churchmen are invariably good men even though belief in god is at best only secondary to what they do. We never know whether Canon Avril, one of the central characters in this book (and a relative of Albert Campion), even believes in god, I’m not altogether sure that the word is actually mentioned, but he exudes goodness. There is one powerful scene where he confronts Havoc in his church at night, a scene that is full of menace in which Avril knows he will probably be killed, and yet there is a necessity to the quiet way he talks to the criminal, a basic moral assumption that is quite moving.
And having said all that, let me reiterate: I have not previously read this novel. It was not one of the Allingham novels dramatised for television. I’m not aware of any film having been made of it. And yet, all the way through it felt familiar. I recognised the foggy postwar setting. I am sure I have encountered these street musicians before. The cellar where they make their collective home is somewhere I recognise. I even felt that I had read the denouement, set well away from foggy London on the sunny coast of France, before. Why and how I just do not know. But all the way through it was not like I was reading the novel, but rather I was re-reading it. What primal thing has Allingham latched on to?
And having said all that, I’ve discovered there was a film of the novel made in 1956, though without the central character of Campion. Except that the stills from the film I’ve seen evoke no memories whatsoever. I suppose it’s always possible I saw it long ago on TV, but then why would I remember what is in the book but not what is in the film?