I had never heard of Nicholas Blake until a my friend K demanded my help in combing the crime section of a secondhand bookshop in Dublin. I became a fan very quickly and began to look for them for myself – honour demanded that I also help K complete her own collection, so until very recently I only owned four of the books myself.
Vintage recently reprinted the first four books in the series (annoyingly one of them, A Question of Proof, is one of the four I already owned) and I have added these to my collection. They’re nice editions, though for some reason the back cover of my copy of Thou Shell of Death has Georgia Cavendish (an important character in the series) as “Georgina” multiple times.
I was hoping that Vintage would also be republishing the rest of the series. Apparently, though, they’re only making them available as ebooks or via print-on-demand. This is disappointing because I’d prefer to own the paper books but cannot justify to myself the added expense of shipping – the POD means that I can’t order them from local Indian booksellers. Ebooks it is, then, and the choice seems to be between the format of my choice (epub/pdf/mobi) on the publishers’ website, or the Kindle. This isn’t even a choice – Amazon have ensured that I don’t feel secure in my ownership of things I buy from the Kindle store. Epub it is, then – at which point the website informs me that ebooks can only be purchased by UK users.
Then again, if I was in the UK I’d be buying the paper versions anyway.
My column last weekend was on the Blake/Day-Lewis books. The original version below; let no one say I cannot fangirl.
A lifetime of Agatha Christie has made me the most tedious sort of reader of murder mysteries. I want country house parties well stocked with the rich and aristocratic. The detectives in these stories are rarely affiliated with the police; they have friends in high places and perhaps a title or two. Perhaps the only thing that might excuse my endorsement of these (usually hideously classist) stories is that most of them involve at least a few members of the upper classes being found lying in pools of their own blood.
Some of the best detectives of this stripe have been written by people with considerable literary success in other fields. Dorothy Sayers, the author of the Lord Peter Wimsey books, for example, translated Dante’s Divine Comedy and wrote at length on Christianity. Less well known are the detective novels of the poet Cecil Day-Lewis.
This being the twenty-first century, Culture is dead and most readers of this column will be more familiar with the works the writer’s son Daniel. However, Cecil Day-Lewis was the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1968-1972. Under the name Nicholas Blake, Day-Lewis began to write mystery novels in the 1930s. Most of these featured Nigel Strangeways, a young man who takes to solving crimes as the logical career for a person with a classics degree.
If the Nicholas Blake books are relatively obscure this is probably because most of them have been out of print for years. People who know about film (I don’t) might perhaps know that the French director Claude Chabrol’s Que la bête meure (This Man Must Die) is based on The Beast Must Die, the fifth Strangeways novel. I had never heard of the books until a few years ago when a friend demanded my help in combing secondhand bookshops for them. I read one; I was hooked. People discovering Blake now will have things far easier. Vintage are now reissuing the books, and four (A Question of Proof, Thou Shell of Death, There’s Trouble Brewing and The Beast Must Die) are already out.
My favourite thing about the Blake books is how connected they are to the literary world to which Day-Lewis belonged. Strangeways in the first book is said to have been based on the author’s friend and contemporary, the poet W.H. Auden. A major character in Head of a Traveller is a frustrated poet, and all the action of End of Chapter is set in a publishing house. Many of the titles are literary references. The book that I most recently finished (title concealed to avoid giving away a vital clue) has its solution rest upon the detective’s (and perhaps the reader’s) knowledge of a particular play.
The other thing that makes these books so wonderful to me are the characters, particularly the women. Thou Shell of Death introduces us to Georgia Cavendish, who later becomes Nigel’s wife. Georgia is an explorer and an adventurer, she’s not conventionally attractive, and is (the book doesn’t make this clear, but it seems likely) a few years older than him. She comes into his life already her own person – she’s made a name for herself in her own field and she has a romantic past. Nor does she cease to be wonderful in subsequent books, and in The Smiler With The Knife she is the real protagonist, putting herself into danger while her husband can only look on. It seems patronising to talk about how amazing all this is for a series of novels written in the 1930s – especially since quite a high proportion of today’s fiction still has trouble creating well-rounded, interesting female characters.
Thou Shell of Death, which I reread today, has moments that date it – the cringeworthy attempt at portraying colloquial Irish accents (Day-Lewis was Anglo-Irish, which makes it worse) is probably the most glaring of these. But it’s easy to forgive Blake for this lapse when the sheer quality of his writing shines through almost every other page. This is some of the finest detective fiction ever written.