Edited extract: Alexander McCall Smith’s introduction to the new Folio Society edition of Margery Allingham’s ‘The Tiger in the Smoke’

A far-fetched, 1950s noir: just perfect for the modern world

Margery Allingham was one of the greatest mid-20th-century practitioners of the detective novel. She published her first novel in 1923 at the age of 19, and her last appeared posthumously in the late 1960s. Between those two milestones, she wrote numerous novels, novellas and short stories, mostly, but not exclusively, concerned with detection. Her books are not mere potboilers, but are well-written, often quite subtle studies of social and psychological issues. In the annals of crime fiction she stands out, in Agatha Christie's words, "like a shining light".

She had ink in her blood, both her parents having been journalists who wrote for and edited popular magazines. It is not surprising, then, that Margery Allingham took naturally to the world of middle-brow fiction of the sort that might as easily find a home in newspaper serialisation as between book covers. Her books are far less static than many crime novels of the period: there are romps in these books; there are treasure hunts; there are all sorts of asides.

The Tiger in the Smoke was first published in 1952. It is generally regarded as being one of her best works, and there is certainly a case for regarding it as an important landmark in the development of the modern crime novel. It is unusual in that there is no central crime to be solved: we know who the principal villain is, although there is a mystery as to why he is planning a bizarre programme of impersonation. While it has an intense period feel – reading it today one gets a very strong sense of England in the post-war years – the central plotline, which is that of a dangerous psychopath carrying out a series of ruthless killings while he eludes capture, has a rather modern feel to it. One gets the sense that, suitably updated, it would serve very credibly the requirements of a contemporary thriller or even a piece of Scandinavian noir.

The plot is, of course, far-fetched - a hallmark of much of Allingham's work. There is a search for a treasure. Coincidences abound, and everyone seems to know everyone else, or at least know of them. That, of course, may well have been the case in real life: we forget just how tight a society Britain was in those days. It must have been horribly oppressive, and indeed the sense of a society on the cusp of major change is present in this particular book. The reference to National Health spectacles is more than a description of spectacles: it is a social and historical pointer.

Margery Allingham's achievement is to combine an atmospheric account of London in the post-war period with both strong and vivid characterisation and considerable dramatic tension. The atmosphere of London is painted with an accomplished brush. Fog – or smog – plays an important part in this: an ideal medium for Havoc, the psychopathic murderer, to sneak about in.

The characterisation is strong and, for the most part, believable. Albert Campion, Allingham's major creation, is mature at this stage of his career, and comes across as quiet and considered, a likeable hero. Lugg, his manservant, is downright odd, and speaks in a way that is distinctly peculiar. Geoffrey Levett takes in his stride his kidnapping by a street band. Such chaps did. The street band is an extraordinary concoction, and features an albino and a dwarf. Yet it is a lovely creation, and gives the author the opportunity to say a lot about the world of the marginal ex-servicemen trying to survive on their wits in an unsympathetic world. And the notion that somebody might be kidnapped by such a band, have his mouth taped up, and then be pushed along under the nose of the gruff local copper, is so boisterous as to be positively enjoyable.

Yet there are many more serious passages that provide a fascinating glimpse into the mores of the time. The character of Uncle Hubert, the Canon, is beautifully drawn, and there is an extraordinary scene in which Havoc and the Canon meet. This results in violence, but the effects of the Canon's words on the nature of the soul are sufficient to make it harder for Havoc to wield his knife with his accustomed deftness.

Since our contemporary thirst for naturalism is so strong, there will be many readers who will find Margery Allingham – along with many other writers of her period – just a bit too far-fetched. There is certainly a plausibility issue with her work, but this is more than compensated for by the wit and by the psychological acuity of her writing.

These novels – The Tiger in the Smoke in particular – are wonderful period pieces. They are highly readable and, in their way, curiously memorable. They say things about human nature that are still true: The Tiger in the Smoke leaves us thinking about evil and human choice, and about how people end up being, in the Canon's striking words, the people they are when they are alone with themselves. That, along with its vivid characterisation and its social detail, is more than enough to make its preservation amply justified.

The Folio Society edition of Margery Allingham's 'The Tiger in the Smoke', with an introduction by Alexander McCall Smith and illustrations by Finn Campbell-Notman, is available from foliosociety.com at £27.95

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there