Nicholas Blake

Nicholas Blake was a pseudonym of the British poet, Cecil Day Lewis, father of actor Daniel Day Lewis.  He was one of several British mystery writers whom I never got around to reading when I devoured mystery novels during the 1960s, although I vaguely recall having read The Dreadful Hollow at some point.  His recurring detective was Nigel Strangeways, a typical amateur sleuth in many ways, although his concentration on the psychological aspects of a crime rather than the physical evidence is often refreshing.  Strangeways was on good terms with the police, particularly Inspector Blount of New Scotland Yard, who was nearly his equal in his ability to solve a crime, and whose attention to detail was extraordinary.

I should preface this with a quick statement about my approach to murder mysteries, which I believe should be read on two levels simultaneously.  On the first level, we are examining the evidence as presented by the author in order to logically determine who is the most likely villain.  Naturally the author’s job is to mislead the reader, preferably without cheating, i.e., falsifying evidence, withholding pertinent facts, introducing the guilty party in the waning chapters with no warning, and so forth.  On the second level, the reader and writer are engaged in a separate contest.  The writer structures his story to obfuscate things; the reader must negotiate a path through the maze to reach the correct solution before it is revealed.  In my experience, it is far more likely to guess right by recognizing when the author is trying to be deceptive than by analyzing the actual events that take place.  When reading most fiction, we try to ignore the existence of the author and concentrate only on the created work; in mystery fiction, we are meant to be aware of the author.  He is our adversary as well as our entertainer.

Warning.  Spoilers follow.  As is my practice in these cases, I read the books in the order in which they were published and, presumably written, starting with A Question of Proof (1935).  The setting is an English boys’ school, where one of the students has been murdered in such a way as to implicate a friend of Nigel Strangeways.  What follows is a straightforward investigation, with a reasonably satisfying conclusion.  The novel’s primary shortcoming is that there is insufficient differentiation among the various teachers at the school, one of whom is clearly the murderer.  Although their motives and personalities are sketched in, they are vague enough to make it difficult to formulate a theory about the crime, and the revelation of the killer is disconcerting rather than startling.  I guessed wrong.

Thou Shell of Death (1936) was somewhat better, and changed the setting to a large country house.   Strangeways is there to protect a famous aviator who has been receiving death threats.  The story is considerably more suspenseful, with people being knocked on the head, threatening letters, and other melodrama, and there is considerable more focus on the psychological state of the various characters.  I guessed right this time, but by luck more than skill.  There’s Trouble Brewing (1937) also has considerable physical action, but badly telegraphs its solution.  Two brothers jointly operate a brewery, but there is bad blood between them.  When the dominant brother disappears, his presumed body is discovered in a vat, boiled down to the bones and only identifiable by inference.  This is, of course, a dead giveaway to most readers that the supposedly dead man has faked his own death.  The flaw is compounded by an entirely unsatisfactory explanation of his motives involving an unlikely transfer of money to the account of his ex-mistress in France.  I knew most of the solution almost immediately, and found the rest implausible.

Strangeways marries one of the suspects from Thou Shell of Death, and she is in fact the protagonist of The Smiler with the Knife (1938), which is not only NOT a Nigel Strangeways book (he has a couple of cameos), but is not a mystery at all.  Georgia Cavendish is a world explorer who is enlisted by the government to infiltrate a secret British fascist organization which is plotting a coup against the government.  She does in fact join the group, is subsequently discovered – although it appears that she never fooled them at all – and then pursued across England.  Through a string of contrived situations, she is unable to contact reliable authorities, while the fascists have an almost supernatural ability to anticipate her moves.  Much of the action comes in the last few chapters, however, and for the most part the novel is tedious.  Blake peremptorily announces later in the series that Georgia was killed driving an ambulance during the Blitz.

The Beast Must Die (1938) is much, much better.  Strangeways and Georgia are trying to help a friend who has been accused of murder.  The difficulty is that the friend had in fact planned to do that very thing, and left a detailed diary outlining his plan which has fallen into the hands of the authorities.  That diary makes up the first third of the book, so that we switch from first to third person narration.  This potentially awkward transition works quite well, and it serves a distinct purpose.  As I mentioned earlier, the use of an untruthful narrator generally cheats the reader; in this case, Blake gets the best of both worlds.  This was far and away Blake’s best novel at this point, and I didn’t see the solution until just before it was revealed. 

Malice in Wonderland (1940) has also appeared as The Summer Camp Mystery and Malice with Murder.  The last title bothers me because it is not a murder mystery at all.  The setting is a posh summer camp on the English coast, which is plagued by a series of practical jokes which become increasingly unsettling and even dangerous.  There is a nicely varied set of characters including a mysterious recluse, a strong minded secretary, and a pompous but brilliant vacationer.  Strangeways is employed in an effort to bring the reign of terror to an end, which he does but only after dealing with a subplot involving espionage.  Alas, Blake shows his hand this time.  When we discover that the camp manager, whom we have believed is well paid and thus devoted to keeping the resort open, is actually treated badly by his employers, the jig is up, even though Strangeways doesn’t pick it up until later.  Blake might have been better off telling us from the outset that he was underpaid, so that we believed it to be a red herring.  Revealing it as a twist much later on draws our attention to it.

Although The Corpse in the Snowman (1941, aka The Case of the Abominable Snowman) is one of Blake’s better mysteries, it has a nagging flaw resulting from the author’s ignorance of the nature and effects of marijuana.  The plot hinges on three factors.  First, use of marijuana results in intense, even violent erotic visions, and second, that administering it to a common housecat would cause that animal to have the same reaction as would a human, and third, that someone addicted (sic) to marijuana would immediately recognize from the cat’s odd behavior that it was under the influence. 

The first murder is designed to look like suicide.  A woman with a known drug problem is found hanging naked in her bedroom.  There are several houseguests, each of whom appears to have a potential motive – inheritance, jealousy, thwarted love, fear of scandal, concern about her influence on two minor children – and so forth.  Strangeways is first on the scene, followed promptly by Inspector Blount, who once again is more than just a foil, his common sense approach restraining Strangeway’s occasional flights of fancy.  A nice touch is that in the opening scene, we are told that there is a body inside the snowman in the front yard.  The bulk of the book is a flashback leading up to that point, in which we discover that two people are missing, one of whom must have killed the other.  Although I managed to figure out who was who shortly before the truth was revealed, Blake has another surprise about the first murder that caught me completely off guard. 

Minute for Murder (1946) has Strangeways working in the Ministry for Morale in the days immediately following World War II.  Although he likes most of his co-workers, they all become suspects when one of the secretaries is murdered in the middle of a meeting, poisoned by one of the attendees.  There is some clever plotting here, because although the reader is led to believe that the source of the poison is obvious, the container in which it was carried has disappeared under conditions which appear impossible.  Once again, Strangeways solves the crime as much through psychoanalysis as detection, and even though I pegged the killer fairly early, I had considerable doubts because I could not anticipate the clever explanation of the missing vessel. 

Head of a Traveler (1949) is one of his more gruesome efforts.  The headless body of a man is found floating in the water near the home of a famous, but reclusive poet, whose household consists of a second wife whom he does not love, but who is devoted to him in large part because he owns property which formerly belonged to her family, two children by his first wife, an unsuccessful painter to whom he has donated use of a smaller house, and the painter’s daughter, who has her eyes on the poet’s son.  There is also a mute, retarded dwarf whom we subsequently discover is the second wife’s illegitimate son. 

We soon learn that the poet came into his good fortune when his brother committed suicide ten years earlier.  The fact that the body was never found should tip off all but the most unsophisticated reader that he has returned only to be murdered, but he was a scoundrel guilty of rape and other crimes and no one regrets his passing.  The cast of characters is so small there are really only five possible murderers, and the romance between the younger couple almost certainly eliminates them from the author’s consideration.  Blake drops several hints that there is a conspiracy to cover up the crime and that led me to the conclusion that only the poet and/or his wife could be responsible, which proved to be the case.  Although the first third of the book sets up the situation quite nicely, the melodramatics involving the dwarf and my early realization of what had actually happened leeched most of the suspense out of this one.

The Dreadful Hollow (1953) was a decided improvement.  This time Strangeways is hired by a rather unlikable magnate, Sir Arthur Blick, to investigate a series of poison pen letters in a small village that have already caused one suicide.  Both of Blick’s sons live there, as well as two sisters, one an invalid, whose father was driven to suicide years before after Blick drove him to bankruptcy.  Also resident is a religiously obsessed, physically distorted, and thoroughly evil postal worker, one of the most vivid villains in mystery fiction.  Although I correctly suspected him as the author of the letters, a discovery soon confirmed by Strangeways, the subsequent murder of Blick is a different story entirely.  There’s also a second, subsidiary mystery, in which a pair of binoculars is rigged as a death trap, but Strangeways reveals its source almost immediately, a short lived red herring that might better have been left out entirely because the motivation behind it – an effort to shock an invalid into recovering the use of her limbs – is ridiculously implausible.

Time tables had figured in some of the earlier Blake novels, but never as crucially as in this case.  The murdered man was drugged sometime between an acrimonious interview and his return to the house where he was staying, but the issue is complicated by the comings and goings and conflicting testimonies among various witnesses and suspects, the possibility that Blick was impersonated during part of that period, the subsequent disposal of his body in a quarry, and the uncertain and perhaps shifting alliances among the other characters.  At one point Strangeways even entertains the possibility that several of the suspects acted in consort, since all of them had sufficient motive to want Blick out of the way.

The solution is skillfully revealed, but again the answer is telegraphed.  Some years ago I wrote science fiction/mystery crossover called Scarab in which I thought I had cleverly constructed the story so that no one would suspect that the invalided character could walk after all.  Judging by the reviews, I was wrong and my solution was obvious.  It’s just as obvious in The Dreadful Hollow, and if we needed another hint, Blake tells us that all of the other characters are obsessively protective of her, and they all subsequenty act in such a way as to make her appear innocent at their own expense.  I still found this one very enjoyable, even though the ending was no surprise at all.

The Whisper in the Gloom (1954) is more adventurous than most of the previous novels, primarily because much of it is seen through the eyes of several young boys.  Strangeways is accidentally drawn into the attempts by a band of baddies to find a coded message deposited with one of the group, who collectively attempt to solve the mystery themselves.  A string of very implausible coincidences renders the first few chapters almost laughable, I’m afraid, and the villainous Mr. Gray implicates himself rather too easily. What follows is more a spy story than a mystery, since we know all but one of the villains as soon as they step on stage.  The coincidences continue, at a slower rate, and even one of the characters comments upon their frequency.  Pointing out a flaw does not make it any less of one.  And I also guessed the identity of the mastermind behind the assassination plot well ahead of Strangeways.  The book also introduces Clare Massinger, who provides some mild romantic interest for our widowed detective.

I found it very difficult to get involved with A Tangled Web (1956), which opens with a lengthy romantic set up between an inexperienced teenaged girl and a man who is reticent about his past and the source of his small but steady income.  She eventually discovers that he is a professional thief, of the somewhat honorable kind, but even though he is sincere about his affection for her, he’s more than slightly a cad, and after a while I wanted to grab the woman and shake some sense into her.  Then a police constable is shot and killed during a robbery, he claims to be innocent, but she isn’t so sure because he has a gun and a very short temper.  And in due course we discover that he is in fact guilty and is sentenced to death.  Good riddance says I, and moved on to the next book.

Blake returned to top form with End of Chapter (1957), which embroils Strangeways in a case of libel and then murder.  He is employed to find out who restored certain actionable passages to the manuscript of a military officer, resulting in a lawsuit.  His suspects include a respected editorial assistant, a bestselling author, her parasitic son, the three partners in the firm, and several less likely candidates.  Although he initially poses as a new employee, the cover lasts for only a chapter or two.  When the bestselling author is murdered, the case takes on a completely new character.

In most mysteries, the author endeavors to allow the reader to have just as much information as the detective, although it is not uncommon for there to be a little cheating involved.  Too much of this sort of thing and the reader will object.  In this case, Blake actually gives us more information than she does to Strangeways, because we “witness” the murder, including the alteration of the manuscript she was working on, although we too are denied the details. There’s a good deal of well constructed misdirection as details of the dead woman’s past emerge, overlapping with the lives of three of the suspects.  He fooled me with the ending this time, although I think my solution would have been better.

A Penknife in My Heart (1958) is the first of Blake’s non-Strangeways novels that I actually enjoyed, although it is extremely derivative of the Hitchcock film, Strangers on a Train (1951).  The gimmick, if you’re not familiar with the excellent movie, is traded murders.  Two strangers meet, each of whom has reason to wish someone close to them dead, and they agree to swap murders so that they can carefully provide themselves alibis for the actual fact.  In Blake’s version, Ned Stowe is a browbeaten husband who is involved with another woman when he is approached by an aggressive and amoral businessman named Stuart Hammer, who hopes to eliminate his uncle and inherit the family business.  The latter character is very much like his counterpart in the film, although the weaker half of the partnership differs considerably and is in fact just as contemptible as his partner.  That was, in fact, my biggest problem with the book.  I didn’t like anyone except the uncle. 

The story diverges at the first killing because Hammer finds Stowe’s wife in bed with another man.  Acting impulsively, he disables the lover and kills the wife, arranging things to implicate the unconscious man.  Unfortunately, there is no way for him to communicate the change of plans to Stowe, who initially insists to the police that he doesn’t believe it possible that his wife had a lover, that it must have been an intruder who was responsible.  But in due course he believes not only that it was possible, but that the lover killed her rather than Hammer, which means he does not feel obligated to go through with his part of the bargain.  On the other hand, Hammer possesses a document which could prove very embarrassing for Stowe, a bit of insurance he had insisted upon as part of their pact.  Trapped, he sets out to fulfill his promise, reneges at the last moment, but the shock of the attempt is just as fatal as a lethal assault.  There follows an almost predictable but still convincing portrayal of a man tormented by his own conscience, culminating in one last meeting with Hammer.  

The next two were similarly rewarding.  The Widow’s Cruise (1959) uses one of my favorite settings, an ocean cruise. An academic recovering from a nervous breakdown is accompanied by her sister, as well as a professional rival, a disgruntled former student, a blackmailer, a singularly obnoxious child, a macho Greek tour guide, and several others including Nigel Strangeways and his now live-in companion, Claire Massinger.  There’s little doubt who the victim will be, considering the animosity she continues to generate, and when she disappears from the ship one night, apparently having jumped or been thrown overboard, it’s no real surprise, although the death of the nosy child is a bit more startling.  Strangeways hastily investigates as the steamer heads for port, revealing that things are not as they seem.  I figured out the method of the murder this time, but Blake has a nice twist at the end that caught me completely by surprise.

The Worm of Death (1961) presents another convoluted, dysfunctional family, an aging doctor, his two underachieving sons, a repressed and mistreated daughter, a drug addicted daughter in law, an adopted son whose cynicism is perhaps a bit overdone, and a maverick painter and would be son in law whose proclivity toward violence is definitely overdone.  After making a cryptic remark, the aging doctor disappears and is subsequently found floating in the river with his wrists slashed, although it seems very unlikely that the wounds were self inflicted.  Since the estate is substantial, everyone has at least one very good motive, and several of them are caught in webs of deceit designed either to protect the family name or cover up unrelated misdeeds.  I thought I’d spotted the killer this time as well, but Blake avoids going for yet another radical change of direction and chooses one from among the obvious candidates, and not the one upon whom I’d placed my bet.

The Sad Variety (1964) reverts to the espionage theme.  A prominent physicist is vacationing when a Soviet spy and two minions, one of them impressed against his will, kidnap the man’s child in order to pressure him into revealing the details of a new discovery that has military implications.  The eight year old girl and her reactions to captivity are the high point of the book.  Although Nigel Strangeways is on the case, it is only her ingenuity and a handful of convenient coincidences that allow the situation to be resolved successfully.  I could ignore Blake’s naïveté about physics – the whole secret can be jotted down on a single sheet of paper in a matter of minutes – but the chief villain is a caricature and the story itself plods along rather lamely until the series of climaxes that resolves everything.

Fortunately, he returned to something closer to his usual form with The Morning After Death (1966), which has Strangeways staying at an exclusive American college to conduct some research.  Shortly after his arrival, one of the faculty is murdered, his body stuffed in a locker for several days before it is accidentally discovered.  As usual, there are plenty of motives including charges of plagiarism, the disposition of a potentially immense estate, and the general obnoxiousness of the victim, one of three brothers all of whom work at the college.  The prime suspect, a disgraced former student, eventually admits that he found and concealed the body, fearing that he would be suspected of the crime.  Strangeways believes him but the police, predictably, would like to solve the case and the student's story is otherwise vague and unconvincing, in part because he is reluctant to implicate his sister and her friends, who helped him hide out for several days.

The case is complicated, as many are, by the propensity of everyone involved to lie about their activities, for one reason or another.  There's also a hint of blackmail, a theme that occurs in several of Blake's novels, although generally it is a side issue designed to obfuscate the more serious crime.  As the story progresses, however, it is fairly easy to figure out the killer's identity and motivation.  Once Strangeways knows the truth, he advises the police, but unaccountably he tells the killer in advance, and almost loses his own life in the process.  This twist makes for an exciting ending, but the advance warning serves no other purpose and is very much out of character.  He also engages in a sexual encounter despite his longstanding relationship with Claire Massinger, perhaps signifying that Blake had tired of this character just as he had earlier decided to eliminate Nigel's wife.

Blake's last mystery novel was A Private Wound (1968), and it is not a Nigel Strangeways story.  A writer takes a cottage in a remote part of Ireland in order to have privacy while writing his next novel.  War seems to loom on the horizon, coloring the attitudes of the locals, some of whom have taken an inexplicable interest in the newcomer.  Against his wishes, he finds himself drawn into one political discussion after another.   He gets involved romantically with a married woman, and then begins to receive death threats, followed by physical attacks.  Blake masks one motive with another and eventually leads us to a violent resolution, but I was never convinced by the characters and ultimately didn't care whether or not the protagonist survived, or who had it in for him.  For me, at least, Blake's career ended with another uninteresting venture into political intrigue.

On balance then, Blake was probably no more than an average mystery writer.  Strangeways is not an interesting enough character to be memorable in his own right, and no single novel rises above average with the possible exception of The Beast Must Die.  His excursions into more overt action - espionage and intrigue - are considerably less interesting than his set piece detective stories.