Archive for the ‘Blake, Nicholas’ Category

I’m usually quite thrilled by detective novels set in academia. Something about dons and scholars and professors bumping each other off and stealing each other’s work and nursing grudges against each other, while holding forth on philosophy, literature, social sciences, and so on, pleases me to my bloodthirsty, pretentious core. A hit is a very palpable hit (witness my intense love for Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night); a miss, like this novel by Nicholas Blake, makes me downright gloomy.

To be fair, it has quite a serviceable plot. Blake’s detective, Nigel Strangeways, is staying at Cabot University near Boston (a thinly disguised Harvard), where he has become acquainted with the Ahlberg brothers, Chester of the business school, Mark of English literature, and Josiah of classics; Charles Reilly, an Irish poet; and Sukie Tate, Mark’s student and fiancĂ©e. Then, Josiah disappears and Strangeways ends up investigating his murder, assisting the police. Josiah wasn’t well-liked, not even by his brothers, so there are several suspects, including Sukie’s brother John, who was forced to drop his classical studies for a year after accusing Josiah of stealing his work. But something just doesn’t work for Blake here; everything seems tired and bit hackneyed, none of the characters are engaging, and the conversation is truly dull. Eventually, after Strangeways enjoys a strange gratuitous sexual interlude that comes completely out of left field, the book climaxes in an ill-advised chase and attack scene that fails to be at all exciting. But you know, by then, I honestly didn’t care. Very disappointing. I’m hoping that this one was a poor piece of work only because it was one of the last two Blake wrote.


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From left to right: W.H. Auden, Cecil Day-Lewis and Stephen Spender in Vancouver, 1949.

When it comes to detective novels, I am a self-confessed junkie. And, by now, a junkie with good taste–there are authors I won’t read and authors I just don’t like at all. But being a junkie means you’re always looking for your next fix–a bit of a problem if, like me, you’ve read your way through all the usual suspects and there’s no more of Christie or Marsh or Sayers or Allingham or James or Dexter left unread.

I end up browsing and re-browsing the detective novel shelves at Blossom, in the hope of finding something new and highly readable. That’s where I landed up with Nicholas Blake–I peeked in, thought the books seemed good, and walked off with a couple. It was only when I got home that I realised who Nicholas Blake was–he was actually Cecil Day-Lewis, British poet laureate and father of actor Daniel, writing detective fiction under a pseudonym, presumably to pay the bills so he could write poetry.

And, you know, I think I’ve found a new author to hunt down (and, thankfully, he wrote 20 detective/crime novels, which means he won’t be exhausted soon). Blake–or Day-Lewis–or Blake, I suppose–writes a superb murder mystery. He’s no John Dickson Carr–the plot wasn’t so devious that the murderer couldn’t be identified by the reader–but that’s not a bad thing at all. What he did here was write a tightly plotted, well-paced tale, set in the upper-class English environs that Christie and Sayers favour, with a set of characters that fit types but are rather more than mere stock. There’s the Loudron family: father Piers who disappears and then is found dead, daughter Rebecca and her “mountebank” painter lover, Walter; son James, another doctor who is mostly concerned with how things appear to his clients; Harold, the colourless younger son and his wife, Sharon, who completely overuses her sex appeal; and Graham, who, in the eyes of Blake’s detective Nigel Strangeways, resembles a fruitbat.

Strangeways himself, an assistant-at-large to the police, isn’t as strongly written as he could have been–there’s an impression of cynicism combined with astute observation skills and the ability to draw people out from behind their suspicions and expose themselves for what they are–and neither is his partner, sculptor Clare Massinger, though they’re both servicable enough to hold up their ends of the action. Blake’s real achievement here is in his loving, detailed etching in of the background to the novel–Greenwich and the banks of the River Thames. The novel employs a precision in description of these settings that does point to its writer being a poet; he combines utility, with the landscape important to the murder plot, with delight in this edge of the city of London. I most definitely look forward to digging through the shelves at Blossom for another Blake.

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