A Tangled Web (Nicholas Blake)

  • By Nicholas Blake
  • First published: UK: Collins, 1956; US: Harper, 1956; also published as Death and Daisy Bland, Dell 1960

Rating: 1 out of 5.

A dull crime novel. Or, if you’re Julian Symons, “The whole story has an air of reality which puts it worlds away from the standard machine-made mystery.  All this is brilliantly handled.”

Daisy Bland, “a child of nature”, falls in love with Hugo Chesterman, cat burglar with a heart of gold.  Hugo kills a man halfway through, and his closest friend Jacko manipulates Daisy into giving the fatal evidence that condemns him to death.

There’s a lot of psychology.  Hugo is a criminal because he hated his father, and transferred that hatred to authority and society at large; and he’s a manic depressive with claustrophobia, which may be due either to “the rigid and intolerable oppression of his father’s personality, or in some remote, buried memory of the womb and the struggle for birth”.  Jacko, meanwhile, is impotent, which brews within him “some explosive mixture, barely under control, of self-pity, resentment, malice”.

There are also several passages of what is either meant to be “literary” writing, or parodies of D. H. Lawrence:

He gazed at her a moment across the little room. With a rush of excitement and terror, she saw his dark face change. His eyes, piercing bright, seemed to pin her against the wall where she stood. She felt impaled, powerless, yet wildly acquiescent. He was a stranger, he was a hawk hovering to swoop down upon her. They came together as if whirled by a clap of wind out of a cloudless sky. She was naked, staring up at him transfixed, an animal in a snare shamming dead under the poacher’s hands, then quivering and struggling. But the pain was good, the surrender and fierce abjection were wonderful; and presently she heard him say, ‘There’s no one like you, my love.’ … They were upstairs again: and this time Daisy came into full possession of her womanhood. She could not have enough of him. ‘Master! Master!’ her peasant blood cried out. She went to sleep, still sobbing with pleasure, a scent of wallflowers from the window-boxes blowing into the room.

Contemporary reviews

Daily Telegraph: A brilliant piece of work.  Nicholas Blake is a master of the detective story.

Elizabeth Bowen: Nicholas Blake’s shrewd plot-building and bizarre humour yield place several times to the splendour of Cecil Day Lewis language.

Manchester Guardian (Patricia Hodgart, 17th January 1956): Miss [Alberta] Murphy, an American novelist [and author of The Lilac Caprice], has almost certainly done a course in Creative Writing (this may be libellous, but is kindly meant); one wishes that many English writers could do the same as a remedy for the slipshod amateurishness which distinguishes so much of their writing.  Nicholas Blake, for example, who should know better, is guilty in A Tangled Web of a banality of expression and a positive disregard for style which rob it of any psychological subtlety it may be supposed to have.  Consequently this story of a young burglar and his mistress, betrayed by their closest friend, excites neither pity nor pleasure but merely a sense of dreary squalor.

Times Literary Supplement (Philip John Stead, 20th January 1956): In A Tangled Web Mr. Nicholas Blake leaves the novel of detection for the crime-novel in which character counts for more than clues.  He bases it on certain real-life happenings of some fifty years ago and tells the tale of a ne’er-do-well young man of good family who has resorted to burglary as a livelihood and of the simple young shop-girl who becomes his mistress.  The story is compelling and the quality of the writing is often delightful—“a young man with a poacher’s face, who came upon you out of the blue of a May morning and kicked hat-boxes into laburnum trees”: thus candidly begins the idyll which turns into something of almost tragic interest.  Hugo and Daisy are sound characters and their relationship is made perfectly credible, but the part played in the later stages of the book by their sinister friend Jaques is less easy to accept, however faithfully it may have been traced from the records on which the story is founded.  One question recurs in the reader’s mind: why has Mr. Blake found it necessary to transplant the action from the Edwardian atmosphere in which its counterpart took place to the present day?  Herein seems to lie the source of any weakness the book possesses.  The evil surgeon would be a more probable person in a more rigid and stuffy social context and Daisy’s ingenuousness would perhaps be even  more natural in its “period” setting.

The Saturday Review (Sergeant Cuff, 22nd September 1956): Cotswold cutie. 17, of “peasant blood,” falls for posh crook; crime career climaxes in cop killing.  Diffuse performance has characters named Charles Poore, Bruce Rogers; pace nowhere precipitate.  Too long.