One of the things I find interesting about Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion novels is that Campion ages more or less in real time. The pre-war Campion of Mystery Mile, Look to the Lady and Sweet Danger is sleek, fast, adventurous, insouciant. The post-war Campion is married, settled, more given to thought than action. Lugg starts to disappear from the stories; and his police contact, Stanislaw Oates, is promoted and replaced by Charlie Luke. Time passes, things change.
And the nature of the stories changes with the aging of the characters. Tiger in the Smoke, generally reckoned to be the best of the post-war Campion novels, is a haunting and atmospheric story of a darkly evil person emerging out of the London fog. But having just read Hide My Eyes, I’d venture to suggest that it is even better.
Though it is hardly an Albert Campion novel at all. Campion is there, making sporadic appearances throughout the text, adding a couple of hunches and a couple of deductions to the inspired detective work of Charlie Luke; but the detection is really no more than the background to a much more interesting story, and Campion and Luke are little more than peripheral figures.
At the heart of the novel is Gerry Hawker, though that is only one of the names he goes by. In part he is an affable rogue who charms everyone he meets; all his contacts are sure he is into something illegal, but he is so affable that none of them can believe it is anything really serious. Even when they encounter evidence to suggest otherwise, they dismiss it, put it out of their minds. But Gerry is also an amoral murderer who, by the end of the novel, has killed ten people. He is modelled, at least in part, on John Haigh, the so-called “Acid Bath Murderer”, executed in 1949, and whose case is referenced several times during the novel. Like Haigh, Gerry is a thief and swindler who believes that once you have taken everything else from your victim, you might as well take their life, and he is so careful and so charming that he gets away with it.
The portrait of Gerry as it develops throughout the novel is chilling and powerful. And though we see his carefree competence begin to unravel, there is still no reason to suppose that he won’t carry on getting away with it. Which is what makes the novel so compelling. This never pretends to be a whodunit, we know that he is guilty, that he is vile and dangerous, right from the start, but as we follow him throughout the one day in which the story happens he remains absolutely fascinating. Gaps and contradictions and errors in his story arise repeatedly, but he seems to sweep them aside effortlessly, and those who are with him, and indeed those who are tracking him, never see enough of the story to be able to recognise these contradictions for what they are.
In contrast to Gerry there is Polly Tassie, a gentle old woman who runs a small private museum devoted to the oddities her late husband had collected throughout his life. She and her husband had befriended Gerry years before, and he now uses her home and museum as an irregular base of operations. She knows that Gerry is a wrong-un, she has even discovered that he has stolen money from her and so has asked a lawyer friend to confront him and get the money back (which results in the lawyer’s death), but she cannot believe his is a serious villain. To believe as much would be to undermine everything that she and her late husband have held dear. Rather, she thinks that Gerry just needs to settle down with a good woman, and has invited the daughter of a cousin to visit in the hope of engineering a match.
Instead, this visit is the beginning of the end for Gerry, because Annabelle has an admirer, who spots Gerry leaving Polly’s home and so determines to find out who he is. As a result he finds himself being swept along with Gerry from place to place, witnessing his brazen lies and equivocations, and slowly coming to realise that he is being set up by Gerry as an alibi for a crime he is planning to commit. Richard provides the viewpoint that allows us to contrast what we know of Gerry with what everyone else sees in him.
One of the other people fooled by Gerry’s lies is the proprietor of a Soho drinking club that, in its layout and its character, reminded me irresistibly of the old Troy Club which I visited a few times. And that is another aspect of the book that fascinated me: the glimpses of a lived-in, worn-out, run-down London as it was when the book came out in 1958. The character of a cafe where the proprietor cat behind a raised counter by the entrance where she could survey her domain; the glimpse of London buses that were grimmer and more essential than they are today; the way street life is carried on. The novel turns out to be an extraordinary window into the past, far more so than is usually the case in Allingham’s novels which are often set in their own peculiar little private universe.
Most of Allingham’s novels I have found satisfying and engaging, but this has a psychological and a descriptive heft that makes it one of her very finest books.