A Question of Proof (Nicholas Blake)

By Nicholas Blake

First published: UK, Collins, 1935, US, Harper, 1935

Blurb (UK)

Blake - A Question of Proof.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

Sudeley Hall Preparatory School was the last place where one might expect murder to be committed.  On the day of the school sports it lay basking in glorious sunshine; a mowing machine droned on the lawns, making an undertone to the birds’ song; the hot sweet smell of hay filled the air. Proud parents, convoyed by their small boys, settled down to watch the sports.  But when the roll was called that evening there was no answer to the name of Wemyss.  No one had seen him since lunch-time.  The grounds were searched and the boy’s body was found in the hayfield adjoining the sports-ground.  A cord wound tightly round his neck left no doubt that he had been strangled.  Nigel Strangeways, a young Oxford man, who has taken to investigating crime as he thinks it is the only career that offers scope to good manners and scientific curiosity, comes down at the request of one of the masters to make enquiries.  Slowly but relentlessly he pieces together the clues in this most baffling of problems.  Eventually he thinks he knows who the murderer is, but as he says, it is “a question of proof”.  Nicholas Blake, whose first novel this is, has made a brilliant entry into the field of detective fiction.

My review

Strangeways is one of the modern detectives  who reasons from psychological rather than physical clues.  He is called in to investigate the murder of a schoolboy at a minor public school, a crime of which a friend of his, Michael Evans, a master at the school, is suspected. The characters are very well drawn, although, with the exception of Evans, his friend Griffin, and the schoolboys, all very unpleasant. Easily the best-drawn character is the murderer, whose motive is unusual but convincing. Although the murderer is so inevitable, his identity is very well hidden, and the murders are both recklessly and ingeniously committed, the last relying on a fine Chestertonian hiding-place praised by John Dickson Carr. This excellent debut is how the psychological detective story ought to be written, following Anthony Berkeley’s rules laid down in the introduction to The Second Shot (1930), instead of being an inverted look at the perversions of an improbable psychopath.

Contemporary reviews

New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 9th March 1935):


Mr. Nicholas Blake’s first detective novel, A Question of Proof, has been declared their book of the month by the Crime Club.  Although this is a very lean month for the Crime Club, it is unusual for the panel of experts who choose what Messrs. Collins shall publish to pin their selection to a first novel, for experience counts for much in writing detective stories.  Experience enables our brigade of veterans to hash up a passable story out of stale and doubtful ingredients in such an artful way that their readers will always swallow the concoction.  We read such books but we do not praise them to our friends, and we forget about them as quickly as possible.  Inexperience often wishes to strike out a new line without appreciating the intractability of detective story material, and produces fantastic plots coupled with unforgivable solutions.  M Blake shows his mettle in his lively description of the boys and masters at a private school.  When the nastiest little boy in the school is found murdered under a truss of hay after the school sports it looks as if Mr. Blake had a pleasant novelty in plots and motives to offer us.  The headmaster’s wife is compromised, a secret society is active among the small boys, and the masters are terribly on each other’s nerves.  Then comes the second murder, and we begin to fear the fantastic element may prove too strong for Mr. Blake’s inexperienced grip.  But the author is not such a novice was we were ready to believe, and he resorts to one of the favourite devices of the old brigade—a madman is at work.  There goes our hope of an original motive!  And to conceal the identity of the madman every character has been evenly smeared with suspicious behaviour; that is another trick of the old hands, to distribute the suspicion so generously and yet so thinly that the author need not decide himself on his criminal until the last chapter.  Naturally, the solution must be counted tolerable, as we have tolerated similar solutions a hundred times before, but it robs a very promising book of the applause we were preparing to give it.  I have no doubt that Mr. Blake will write better detective stories than his first when he realises that for a reader to be startled by a solution the author must keep him in trim to be startled.  Once the limpet is allowed to close the chink of expectancy, you will never spring him off his rock of indifference; his sceptical shell has been too hardened by the attempts of all your predecessors.


Times Literary Supplement (14 March 1935):

There is likely to be some speculation about the authorship of this book, which is said to be the work of one of our most prominent younger poets.  It is certainly a very competent and readable first essay in what may be called “highbrow” detective fiction.  The dialogue is sprinkled, as one would expect, with a number of literary quotations, but apart from this—for the style is perfectly simple and straightforward—there is nothing to show that the book is the work of a modern poet, although there is a certain significance in the fact that the plot is laid in a preparatory school.  As a school story the book is more than competent.  It is obvious that the author knows what he is talking about and has given much thought to the relations between boys and masters and to the puzzling psychology of classroom and common-room.  Dialogue and description are alike admirable.  The detective interest of his tale, though highly ingenious, is less satisfactory.  An unpopular boy is found strangled in a “hay-castle” before the school sports.  The difficulty, of course, is to suggest a plausible motive for such a crime.  Unpopularity, with the staff and the boys, is not a very convincing one; nor, indeed, is it likely that his uncle, the headmaster, who stood to gain financially by his death, would go so far as murder; and the same can be said of the two masters, one of whom was the lover of the headmaster’s wife, the other of a housemaid.  The only possible motive will probably occur to the intelligent reader before the crime is solved by Nigel Strangeways, the amateur detective.  The use of an amateur, who is under no obligation to take either the police or the reader into his confidence, is a happy device for spinning out the story and confusing the issue, but it will not appeal to the connoisseur of scientific detection.


Observer (Torquemada, 17th March 1935):

The Crime Club consider Mr. Nicholas Blake as their most brilliant discovery since that of Mr. Philip Macdonald.  While acknowledging the increasing debt we have all owed to the latter since the appearance of The Rasp, I do not see why this particular landmark should have been chosen, since Mr. Macdonald is, after all, more wizard than writer.  A Question of Proof is a piece of easy, assured and humorous prose, a delightful study from many angles of the ageless preparatory school.  As for the wrapping and unwrapping of the murderer, it is sufficient to say that there is no living writer of detective stories who will not have to look to his or her laurels if Mr. Blake can do it again.


Spectator (Rupert Hart-Davis, 29th March 1935):

Mr. Blake writes beautifully.  His setting is a preparatory school, and many a prospective obelist may be tempted to throw down his microscope and read the book simply for the excellence of its characterisation, its description and its prose.  Not that the detective element is badly presented; Mr. Blake might perhaps learn a little from Mr. Daly King as to the creation of suspense, but on the whole his mechanics are excellently contrived.  There is only one noticeable blunder—concerning the Peerage, or rather the title of the murdered boy; unimportant as it happens, but calculated to send a too wary observer scuttling after missing heirs.  This is the best first detective novel that has appeared for many years.


Hugh Walpole:

Extremely entertaining to read.  This is more of a novel than a thriller.


London Booksellers in the Evening Standard Supplement:

A first mystery novel which at once admits the author into the exalted company of such masters as Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie.