Given my immense fondness for Agatha Christie and DL Sayers, I thought I should try some of the other so-called Queens of Crime. This experiment has met with some success. ECR Lorac, for example, was a great shout, as was PD James – I’m really enjoying both authors. I haven’t got to Ngaio Marsh yet, and although I’ve read a couple of Margery Allingham’s short stories in anthologies, I’ve never read any of her novels. I can’t remember why I put The Tiger in the Smoke (1953) on my Classics Club list in particular, but the premise is a good one. Meg Elginbrot, who was widowed young during the war, has fallen in love again and is about to get married to her fiancé Geoffrey. Out of the blue, though, she begins receiving photographs purporting to be of her dead husband, Martin Elginbrot, alive and well with recent landmarks. The photos are not good enough quality for her to be sure whether it’s him. Even if it is, the motivation is unclear: if blackmail, it’s strange that they haven’t waited until after the wedding so that Meg could be accused of bigamy; if it’s really Martin and he wants a reconciliation, it’s strange that he hasn’t provided any contact details or other information. Meg and her fiancé Geoffrey contact Albert Campion, Allingham’s detective character, for advice.

To start with the good, because that’s always nice: I thought the setting was done very well. The “Smoke” in question is London, enveloped in grim post-war smog. Most of the novel takes place in the city, and Allingham really gives a sense of how difficult it is to navigate through the pea-soupers, often using that to confound her detectives or her villains (or both). One of her minor characters, Canon Avril Something-or-other (Meg’s father), is also done very well – he comes across as being a fairly fluffy, unworldly vicar typical in this type of story, but he’s given an interesting plotline that allows him to demonstrate more facets of character. The times when I was in Canon Avril’s head, as it were, were probably my favourite moments in the book.

Unfortunately, although this novel has so much going for it in terms of setting and premise, I didn’t really enjoy it. The depiction of Campion’s working class DDCI, Charles Luke, was tedious and entrenched in stereotypes. It’s hard to say how much this was aggravated by the accent David Thorpe chose to give him, which ventured perilously close to a being a Dick Van Dyke (and with neither Van Dyke’s charm nor his excuse of hailing from the other side of the pond). He’s clearly supposed to be a “salt of the earth” type, but the stereotype just comes across as lazy. The same is true of Lugg, Campion’s working-class sidekick, who appears towards the end and isn’t given very much to do. Allingham also clearly attended the Enid Blyton School of Describing Baddies – at one point, Geoffrey wakes up having been taken captive by a gang of violent petty crooks, all of whom have some visible disability or disfigurement. She refers to them primarily by condition (“the dwarf”, “the albino”) rather than by name throughout the rest of the novel. I think it’s meant to be funny, but it in fact just comes across as unpleasant.

I also found it difficult to buy Meg as a character. She’s so unfathomably stupid. It’s not at all helped by the silly, simpering voice Thorpe puts on when portraying her, but even discounting that, her decisions and thought processes are almost impossible to understand. She seems childlike and impossibly naive, which in turn sets up a rather unpleasant power differential in her relationship with her fiancé. The book ends before he can say “don’t worry your pretty little head about it, darling” but I felt like he was always about ten minutes away from doing so. Beyond her youth and beauty – both emphasised at every possible moment – there isn’t really a lot to recommend Meg, and yet we are forced to spend an awful lot of time with her. In the context of the time, I suppose it makes a little more sense. Unlike the rest of the characters, it feels as though Meg is somehow untouched by the war (despite having lost her first husband to it), and I suppose that very naivety is intended to be refreshing for the reader as well as the other characters – but it doesn’t translate at all to the present day, or at least it didn’t for me. I spent the whole book wanting to tell her that she is in fact a grown adult and would benefit from acting like one.

Overall, then, this was not a PD James or ECR Lorac-style success. I won’t be revisiting Allingham (except in the occasional short story anthology) and I hope I find Ngaio Marsh less unpleasant when I get to her!