Head of a Traveller (Nicholas Blake)

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Blake’s masterpiece: a genuinely tragic and beautifully written novel which neglects neither the detection or the mystification. When a corpse is found floating down the Thames outside Plash Meadow, the Oxfordshire home of the poet Robert Seaton and family, all so sharply characterised that it is painful, Nigel Strangeways descends, and, acutely conscious of his ambiguous position as both friend and traitor, finds the answer to the murders in the poetry of Robert Seaton, the suicide of his brother Oswald, scattered severed heads, and a mackintosh. He discovers the truth against his will, despite his own efforts to protect the Seaton family, so that his old friend and colleague Supt. Blount becomes the enemy. At the end, his feelings lead him into a superbly-handled moral quandary, a deliberately open-ended conclusion which shocks and startles more than any ending in which all the ends are neatly tied together. The finish is open-ended, but the clues to the murderer are properly explained, with admirable ratiocination on the parts both of Nigel and Blount. In short, an immortal book, a book that combines an understanding of the human psyche with a properly worked-out and surprising solution, doubly satisfying on both counts.

Blurb (UK)

A young couple on holiday leisurely punting on the Thames discover the body of a man entangled in the underwater weeds – a body complete save for the head, and that missing head was to cause a famous poet, his family and friends a lot of trouble before the mystery was finally cleared up.  But this is no ordinary mystery – it is a triumph of virtuosity in which Mr. Nicholas Blake again displays his uncanny talents, at once baffling his readers with a problem bristling with apparently insuperable difficulties and at the same time earning our unstinted praise for the amazing ease of his storytelling as he unfolds the intricacies of this surprising case.  Head of a Traveller, of course, features the admirable Nigel Strangeways, who has delighted us in so many other Nicholas Blake stories.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (8th July 1949): Mr. Blake’s Nigel Strangeways is again called in to investigate a murder mystery, this time involving a famous poet, his family, and a neighbouring artist and his daughter.  The ending is unusual, although the complications leading up to it take over-long to sort out.

New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 3rd September 1949): Nicholas Blake is always a pleasure to read.  (Sensitive handling of the English language is not so easily come by in detection.)  In Head of a Traveller a headless body is dragged to light from one of the upper reaches of the Thames, outside the backdoor of a poet’s riverside house.  The close, thundery atmosphere of the Thames Valley almost gives one a headache with its realism.  The plot is far-fetched, but not outside the bounds of plausibility: the persons under suspicion in the poet’s ménage have their characters lovingly exposed.  Too lovingly!  The cloven hoof of the villain is plain to see among such a welter of innocence.

Elizabeth Bowen in the Tatler: A masterpiece.  The extraordinary edge and force, and the haunting undertone of the Nicholas Blake books are something quite by themselves in English detective fiction.