Not My Nigel*: on Strangeways’ women

From here:

Literary detectives might also like to try out a pet theory of Stephen Spender, namely that the outwardly courteous and gentlemanly Poet Laureate used his Blake books to revenge himself on his mistresses. The habit has its origins, arguably, in Thou Shell of Death, when Strangeways is first given a love interest, a free-spirited explorer, Georgina Cavendish, loosely based on Margaret Marshall, an older, sexually adventurous woman with whom Day-Lewis was entangled when at Oxford, to the great distress of his vicar father. Cavendish then dies in the Blitz in 1941 in Minute for Murder at precisely the point that Day-Lewis himself falls in love with the novelist Rosamond Lehmann and turns his back on his first wife, Mary. In 1957’s End of Chapter, there is more than a passing resemblance between the victim, young, highly strung female novelist Millicent Miles, and Day-Lewis’s mistress, Elizabeth Jane Howard, best friend of his second wife, Jill Balcon. And then in The Deadly Joker (1963), the corpse belongs to Vera Paston, who shares much in common with the Indian novelist, Attia Hosain, with whom Day-Lewis had been involved.

When my friend Kajori first demanded that I read the Nigel Strangeways detective novels, written by Cecil Day-Lewis under the pseudonym Nicholas Blake, it was her gushing about the women that convinced me. In the early books Strangeways meets, then marries, Georgia Cavendish, who is – like Margaret Mashall, apparently – older than him and sexually adventurous. She’s also a well-known explorer in her own right; she’s good at what she does, she’s not conventionally attractive. In The Smiler With the Knife she gets to be the protagonist of a book that is nominally part of the series about her husband. I was in love. It helps, of course, that there’s so much else to love about the Strangeways books, that they’re clever and literary and often gorgeously written.

Clare, Nigel’s next partner, was never going to live up to Georgia and I’ve been a bit biased against her for this reason. Yet I recently read one of the later books, The Worm of Death, and she stands up reasonably well. Clare is also famous in her own right (everyone around Strangeways seems to be) – she’s a well-known sculptor, shouts at people when necessary, and occasionally [SPOILER] kills them.

But there’s another woman in The Worm of Death, Sharon, with “blood-red nails”, to whom Nigel is apparently irresistable. But Nigel “never consider[s] propositions before breakfast”, and besides a kiss that seems meant to humiliate her more than anything else, there’s little between them. But what this does is to turn Nigel into the sort of character that women throw themselves at – a hero stereotype that had been missing from the earlier books (as far as I’d read them) in the series.

And so we come to The Morning After Death, the last book in the series. This is set in the literature and classics departments of an American university, and is therefore particularly amenable to the sort of literary referencing that litters the series. It’s also a very male university, with only one prominent woman in academia – she is, of course, doing a PhD on Emily Dickinson.

An early suggestion that things are about to go horribly wrong with this book comes when a prominent visiting poet decides to assault said PhD student. I’ve highlighted the particularly fun bit.


(wouldn’t it be nice if I could have just copied and pasted that? This isn’t the place to rant about DRM, but honestly.)

Sukie herself later downplays this rape.

And then there’s Sukie’s attraction towards Nigel, whose irresistable sexual appeal to women seems to have carried over from the last book. After a number of attempts to sleep with him, she finally ends up in his lap. “Oh, well, he sighed to himself”, before apparently having sex with her as an act of charity – one that he presumably enjoys, since we’ve been hearing all about her “supple” body since the beginning of the book. Luckily Sukie knows better than to ask for more, and is sufficiently grateful.

tonstant weader fwowed up


Alright then.

Since this is the last ever Strangeways novel we’re never told if Nigel’s giving pity fucks to beautiful young women affects his relationship with Clare. But The Morning After Death does this, and it does blackface, and it does grateful black families who will do anything for white people who are pro-civil rights, and it’s utterly tragic that such an excellent series of books should end this way.


*see here.

One Comment to “Not My Nigel*: on Strangeways’ women”

  1. I’ve just read this one. Sukie sent Nigel off with his back well clawed. Did he heal up before he got back to London? There were rules in those days, ans she broke them!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>