The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham
Because the UK is celebrating Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee around now, this week's books all have a first publication date in 1952. Some of them have vaguely-applicable titles.
Mrs Cash came in. At the first sight of her every experience-sharpened wit which [police sergeant] Picot possessed came smartly into play, yet at first sight there was nothing outstandingly peculiar about her. She was a sturdy little person, nearer 60 than 50, very solid on her feet, very tidy. Her very good black coat was buttoned up to her throat and finished with a tippet of very good brown fur. Her massive face, and the thick coils of wonderfully-arranged iron-grey hair, together with the sleek flat hat which sat upon it, seemed so much all of one piece that the notion of them ever coming apart was slightly shocking. She carried a large black bag, holding it squarely on her stomach with both neatly gloved hands, and her eyes were round and bright and knowing.
She studied Picot, made a note of him as openly and casually as if he were a door marked Exit, and walked steadily over to [Canon] Avril...
[At the end of her interview] she rose very lightly for one of her build and trotted out, looking like a pottery figure designed to hold mustard. Picot could just see her with a spoon sticking out of her hat.
Observations: One commentator on The Tiger in the Smoke makes this point: afterwards you can scarcely remember what the point of the plot was, or the ending for that matter, but the atmosphere and the characters live on in your mind forever, along with the confrontation near the end between the bad man and the clergyman. Mrs Cash is villainous and so is her son, and they make your flesh creep, but the really brilliant portrait is Canon Avril – as many have pointed out, it is much harder to write interestingly about virtue, but he is both convincingly good and a truly memorable creation. The whole book is one of the finest thrillers of the 20th century, and should be much better-known and remembered.
It is also a lovely picture of 1950s London, for which The Smoke was a slang term – much of the action takes place in one of the old ‘pea-souper’ fogs, with strange details such as putting a yellow silk sock on your torch. A notorious fog in that very year, a fog in which many people died, led in the end to the passing of the Clean Air Act, and the end of the smogs.
A tippet is a stole or scarf. Another character is wearing a cheviot, which apparently is a garment made of wool from cheviot sheep.
Links up with: A very-different fur collar for an almost-contemporary in New York, here. More from the backstreets of London in Call the Midwife. Hobbes, in the commentary on this entry, is a tiger.
The photo is from the Swedish National Heritage Board, via Flickr.