Nicholas Blake

Blake - photo

Pseudonym of Cecil Day-Lewis

Poet Laureate

Born: 27 April 1904, County Laois, Ireland

Died: 22 May 1972, Hadley Wood, UK


Overview

Most of my crime stories have followed the pattern of the ‘classical’ detective story: I like its blend of steely logic and pure moonshine; I like the way it encourages one to break out now and then into wild fantasy.  But detection writers do sometimes get impatient at composing what are, after all, no more than elaborate puzzles; we yearn to explore at greater depth the behaviour of people under abnormal stress.

One of the greats, combining technical mastery with fine writing.

His detective stories featuring Nigel Strangeways, one of the most likeable sleuths in all fiction, are scrupulously plotted formal detective stories that mix complex plots and ingenious solutions with compelling characterization.

Like Agatha Christie, Blake struck a balance between detection and characterization.  As Barzun & Taylor’s Catalogue of Crime said, ‘he never shirks clueing and thinking’.  He could be inspired with clues, both physical and psychological (as in The Widow’s Cruise), and some of his solutions (Thou Shell of Death) are brilliant.

His plots are character-driven, and never arbitrary.  The murderers are often sympathetic human beings, driven to crime in order to avenge a loved one or by some strong passion.  Because of his interest in the emotional pressures that lead to murder, the culprit is sometimes obvious before the end, but this surprisingly does not detract from their interest.

Blake himself downplayed his characterization; he argued that they were neither “ciphers” nor “portraits in depth”, which would overwhelm the story and reveal its artificiality, but rather had “the simple vividness of poster-painting”.  They have an individuality and inwardness that few characters in detective fiction do, and in many ways anticipate P.D. James, who greatly admired his work.

Each of his books has its own tone.  He was adept at depicting small communities, could make his characters ‘live’ (more than just suspects), and present complex emotional situations, including dilemmas for the detective.

The crimes Nigel Strangeways investigates often draw on events in Day-Lewis’s own life; most famously, The Beast Must Die (1938) was inspired by his son’s narrow escape from being run over, while Minute for Murder (1947) and The Worm of Death (1961) both draw on his guilt about adultery.  The Private Wound (1968) is a semi-autobiographical reflection on his amorous experiences in Ireland nearly forty years before.  Other books deal with the process of writing poetry: both Head of a Traveller (1949) and End of Chapter (1957) feature a poet whose best work is a response to a traumatic event.

Several novels are set in places that Day-Lewis knew first-hand, including a prep school (A Question of Proof, 1935), a government ministry (Minute for Murder, 1947), and American universities (The Morning After Death, 1966).  The personal dimension of these works lends Blake’s work a particular edge.

He was also a superb writer (as was only to be expected from a Poet Laureate).  His style was crisp, clear, witty, and inventive, without the occasional  self-consciousness of Innes or Sayers.  All in all, an intelligent, civilised, and sympathetic detective novelist.

 

Best works

  • A Question of Proof (1935)
  • Thou Shell of Death (1936)
  • The Smiler with the Knife (1939)
  • The Case of the Abominable Snowman (1941)
  • Head of a Traveller (1949)
  • The Whisper in the Gloom (1954)
  • The Widow’s Cruise (1959)

His best known work is The Beast Must Die (1938), but I’m not a fan.


Works

  1. A Question of Proof (1935; Nigel Strangeways)
  2. Thou Shell of Death (1936; Nigel Strangeways; published in the US as Shell of Death)
  3. There’s Trouble Brewing (1937; Nigel Strangeways)
  4. The Beast Must Die (1938; Nigel Strangeways)
  5. The Smiler with the Knife (1939; Nigel & Georgia Strangeways)
  6. Malice in Wonderland (1940; Nigel Strangeways; published in the US as The Summer Camp Mystery)
  7. The Case of the Abominable Snowman (1941; Nigel Strangeways; published in the US as The Corpse in the Snowman)
  8. Minute for Murder (1947; Nigel Strangeways)
  9. Head of a Traveller (1949; Nigel Strangeways)
  10. The Dreadful Hollow (1953; Nigel Strangeways)
  11. The Whisper in the Gloom (1954; Nigel Strangeways)
  12. A Tangled Web (1956; published in the US as Death and Daisy Bland)
  13. End of Chapter (1957; Nigel Strangeways)
  14. A Penknife in My Heart (1958)
  15. The Widow’s Cruise (1959; Nigel Strangeways)
  16. The Worm of Death (1961; Nigel Strangeways)
  17. The Deadly Joker (1963)
  18. The Sad Variety (1964; Nigel Strangeways)
  19. The Morning After Death (1966; Nigel Strangeways)
  20. The Private Wound (1968)

What they say…

News Chronicle (London): “He is the best living writer who writes detective fiction … shows a subtlety and deftness that are as uncommon in tales of crime as is his prose.”

London Bookseller: “Nicholas Blake’s first novel admitted him at once to the exalted company of such masters as Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers.”

Huge Walpole: “Nicholas Blake can create character … a remarkable gift for dialogue.”

Spectator: “He is in the front rank of contemporary detective novelists.”

Spectator: “Mr. Nicholas Blake’s prose style has a natural and easy grace.”

The Times: “Like Dorothy Sayers, he peoples his stage with people who would hold the attention, murder or no murder.”

The Sketch: “Mr. Blake writes with distinction, there is poetry in his prose and he is careful about characterisation.”

Current Literature: “Mr. Blake writes like a poet, has a dramatist’s eye for character, and states and solves a problem with the neat simplicity of a first-rate scientist.”

Manchester Guardian: “A really first-class writer.”

Dr. Alington: “I feel quite sure that the author has real genius.  He has a power of writing and a style which mark him out.”