I made a couple of New Year’s resolutions involving crime this year: to start up a regular weekly crime column here in ShelfTalk, and to alphabetically read my way through the mystery section at the Central Library, two authors/letters each month. My colleague Linda has done this twice, up to the letter G anyway, and so I can’t resist the attempt to get beyond Sue Grafton; this post kicks off both those resolutions.
A is for Allingham.
I read two of Allingham’s Albert Campion books; they were very different. The first – Mystery Mile (1930) – was just the sort of classic whodunnut I’d expected: a large cast, charming eccentrics, and a nice puzzle plot in the Christie tradition. Campion seems here to be, if not exactly Bertie Wooster at least somewhere in his genus: the sort of silly harmless twit who typically rounds out the crowd in attendance as a murder is discovered at the Country House. Of course this blandness is all a blind for Campion’s astute sleuthing, and the fact that he’s also a noble masquerading as a commoner (Campion is not his real name) seems to harken back to the Gentlemen heroes of Sapper and his ilk, as the enigmatic villainy of Simister faintly suggests the likes of Fantômas. Fine, fun, and quite good for fans of Golden Age mysteries and latter day cozies.
The Tiger in the Smoke (1952) is a different animal altogether, more akin to Greene’s Brighton Rock or Kersh’s Night and the City than Sayers or Christie, and the sort of crime novel I’d unreservedly suggest to readers ranging from those who enjoy the traditional mysteries of Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy Sayers, Josephine Tey or Edumund Crispin, to fans of contemporary British crime such as P.D. James, to anyone who enjoys a masterfully told suspenseful novel exploring good and evil in equal measure. The opening gambit is perfectly haunting, as a war widow soon to remarry is confronted with evidence of her dead husband’s phantom presence in the foggy streets of London, aka “The Smoke.” This evocative spookiness reminded me instantly of Elizabeth Bowen’s uncanny short story, The Demon Lover, or Charles Williams’ classic wartime ghost story, All Hallow’s Eve – a wartorn London haunted by the ghosts of the countless dead.
The villain of the piece, the aptly named Jack Havoc, is a ruthless serial killer with a highly developed sense of amorality who cruises the murky depths like a shark or, erm, well, a tiger. No, I haven’t just given away the whole plot(s), for this isn’t that kind of crime novel. His foil is the widow’s ecclesiastical landlord (and Campion’s uncle) the Canon Avril, who follows the righteous path as effortlessly as Havoc embraces darkness, and whose presence as an unequivocal force for good keeps the novel poised between the bready reassurance of fair play mystery, and the disconcerting shadows of noir. And Campion? He plays his important role largely from the sidelines, so much so that the 1956 film of the book cut the character altogether – try that with Poirot.
However you want to classify it, it is easily one of the best crime novels I’ve ever read. Mesmerizing, in fact. I’d love to read more Margery Allingham, but now I’m on the B’s (…let’s see, I’ve actually read and loved a lot of these – Box, Block, Burke, Bruen… maybe something classic. hmm…)