Sunday, October 6, 2013

Cleopatra Ain't the Only Queen of Denial: Hide My Eyes (1958), by Margery Allingham

"Don't they make you tired?" he said, referring no doubt to womenkind in general.  "Cruel to themselves half the time, cruel to themselves."

Don't look now....
What's your favorite Margery Allingham crime novel?  It's been de rigueur for some time now to say The Tiger in the Smoke (1952), but, truth be told, that one's not mine.

Purely as a matter of personal enjoyment I probably prefer the following Allinghams:

The romantic fantasia Sweet Danger (1933); the manners novels Death of a Ghost (1934) and Dancers in Mourning (1937); the Wodehousian The Case of the Late Pig (1937); the richly atmospheric More Work for the Undertaker (1948); the amnesia thriller Traitor's Purse (1941) and, last but certainly not least, the late, dark thriller Hide My Eyes (1958).

Hide My Eyes is in print, both in the US and the UK, so perhaps an odd choice for a forgotten book, but it seems so much in Tiger's shadow that I feel it's a justified choice.

To be sure, Hide My Eyes shows similarity to The Tiger in the Smoke.  Both are suspense thrillers, with very evil men at the center doing nasty things and menacing some typical Allingham nice young people.

There are as well interesting older characters in both books, Canon Avril in Tiger and Polly Tassie in Eyes; and in both Albert Campion is set rather to the side of the doings.

Yet I find the relationship between Eyes' villain, Gerry Hawker, and the older person, Polly Tassie, more fascinating than that between Tiger's Jack Havoc and Canon Avril. Allingham excelled at the creation of "Grande Dame" characters and Polly Tassie is perhaps her greatest accomplishment in this vein.

acid baths
John George Haigh
Polly is indeed grand, but she is also grandly flawed, due to her infinite--and here misguided--capacity for love. Her fatal devotion to the male of the species, in this particular case a relentless homicidal monster, is the main theme of the novel, and Allingham portrays it masterfully.

Polly comes to see this deep failing in herself, and seeing how she finally deals with it makes compelling reading indeed.

In the end I find Eyes a darker and more convincing novel than Tiger.  References to John George Haigh (1909-1949), the notorious acid bath murderer, show the awful wellspring of Allingham's inspiration for Gerry; and I find in him her most chilling and persuasive portrayal of a criminal sociopath.

Impressive too, along with the splendid writing and characterization, is the structure of Eyes. Taking place in a single day, the narrative is a brilliant counterpoint of the actions of a killer, Gerry; his doting surrogate mother, Polly; a very nice boy, Richard; a very nice girl, Annabelle; the police (our old friend Charlie Luke and others); and Allingham's redoubtable series hero, Mr. Campion.

Campion has a few moments to shine, but he could have been written out of the novel without its suffering overmuch.  Campion fans lament his smaller role is some of the later Allingham books and I miss him too, but this book is strong enough to work with so much less of him (and no Lugg whatsover).

Albert Campion
deeper than you may think
There's a nice moment after our Albert meets Polly and Annabelle and the two women discuss him, and, by implication, the silly-ass gentleman amateur detective of the Golden Age:

"He worried me, poor chap.  He seemed so very unsure of himself."

"Darling,...It's an affectation of his time.  Young men invented it in the twenties."

The little, light asides are welcome in what is, really, rather a dark murder novel.

In her biography of Margery Allingham, Julia Jones acutely notes that "Tiger in the Smoke is finally optimistic," whereas Hide My Eyes is more ambiguous in its resolution.  More cannot be said, of course, without spoiling the novel.  If you haven't read it, by all means do so.  And check out Julia Jones' splendid biography, which has been reissued with new material, as The Adventures of Margery Allingham.  She'll show you how Allingham's own troubled personal life influenced the writing of Hide My Eyes.  More fascinating stuff!


  1. I just ordered it on Paperbackswap! Thanks!

  2. I second your championing of Julia Jones's book: it is a model biography, about a fascinating woman, and just a great read. And she and you have convinced me that I definitely have to re-read Hide My Eyes after a long gap.

    1. I very much enjoyed looking back at Julia's bio after rereading Hide My Eyes--I found rereading a good bit of the book!

  3. Thank you so much Clothes in Books - here's hoping that HME doesn't disappoint.

  4. And thank you too, Passing Tramp, for a wonderfully perceptive review of HME. That opening scene with the two old people sitting in their country bus in the dark London night and the rain must be one of the most extraordinary opening chapters in an author who specialised in extraordinary openings. I suspect that there may have been readers in the past who have fallen at that stiff first fence. Your review will encourage them to take another leap of faith.

    1. We are in total agreement on this one, Julia! And thanks for stopping by the blog.

  5. Just found this. Don't people say "Tiger in the Smoke" because it was made into a film and it's the only one they've heard of? Meeeeow!!!