Minute for Murder (Nicholas Blake)

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Good, but not outstanding, Blake. Strangeways, an employee of the Ministry of Morale, head of the Editorial Unit of the Visual Propaganda Division, is now a widower, but his grief has not interfered with his detection.  His keen introspection of character and psychology, particularly of the participants in the adulterous romantic triangle that ends in the murder of the director’s lover and secretary, is masterly. Our sympathies are with her, not with the husband or his cuckolded wife; as Strangeways says, ‘I really prefer the people who bite off more than they can chew, the people who don’t make reservations about love.’ This sympathetic treatment of adultery is a recurring theme in Blake’s books; indeed, Strangeways ends his career going to bed with a young American student. The mystery, however, is not as strong as in other Blake novels; the reader should be able to solve the mystery without too much difficulty, and the murder method does not entirely convince.  The trick of concealing the capsule in the back teeth is extraordinarily risky, and works only because the policeman performing the searches neglects his duty. For this reason, and despite some exciting scenes, there are several plateaux, particularly in the middle section of the book.

Blurb (UK)

That exceptionally talented writer Mr. Nicholas Blake makes a very welcome reappearance in the Crime Club with a really outstanding detective story, set in the wartime Ministry of Morale.  A beautiful girl, secretary to the Director of the Visual Propaganda Division, is poisoned in full view of seven members of the Division, including Nigel Strangeways who is a temporary Civil Servant for the duration.  A minute before, Major Kennington – an ex-member of the Ministry who has just returned from secret service work in Germany – has been showing to his old friends a cyanide container taken from the Nazi leader, Stulz, when he was captured.  The disappearance of the container, the lack of any obvious motive for the murder, the complex personal relationships of the suspects – all these confront Strangeways with the knottiest problem of his career, a problem in which suspicions of high treason and the tragic working of human passions both play their part.

Contemporary reviews

New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 26th July 1947): INTELLIGENT MURDER

Everyone reads detective stories—at least that would be a safe assumption for a writer of detection.  And the safest method of appealing to the general public is flattery.  Why, then, these constant insults to the level of our intelligence?  For that is what most detective stories boil down to.  They may play up to our desire for power and our yearnings for infallibility; they may gratify our passion for speed (look at the long bonnets of the motor-cars) or our personal vanity (look at the wine-lists and the Havana cigars); they may even purge us of our sense of guilt, as many optimists suggest.  But they practically never admit that the reader may be the intellectual equal of the author.  Of course, many of the authors, not having much intelligence themselves, are busy bolstering up their own vanity by despising the public.  But there are plenty of highly intelligent men and women on the detective path, who don’t seem able to construct a plot without feeling a wave of condescension for the poor trash who are doomed to be taken in by it.  Perhaps they cannot purge themselves of a sense of guilt for writing detective stories at all, when they ought to be producing genuine works of art.  At any rate when an intelligent author does decide for some reason or other to write up to his own standard, and not to the assumed low taste of the public, the result is spectacular.  The first three books of the late Willard Wright (“S.S. Van Dine”) were written in that style, and made him a fortune.  Later he couldn’t resist the temptation to scorn the people who bought his books; so he fell back into the hackneyed rut.

Minute for Murder is the eighth of Nicholas Blake’s novels but the first to show his full capacity in this genre.  For once his remarkable talents have been directed to the implications of his plot, and not merely to imposing on the credulity of his readers.  His detective, Nigel Strangeways, ceases to pose as a leisurely superman and deigns to be an ordinary human being, busily employed to all appearance in the Ministry of Information, where the murder takes place.  Why should anyone want to drop cyanide into the coffee of the dazzling blonde secretary, who looks “like a damned great carnivorous orchid”?  Seven persons had the opportunity; so who had the motive?  This time you need not be afraid your intelligence will be underrated.  On the contrary it will be put to a severe test.  Nicholas Blake faces the fact that motives for murder actually must vary with the characters of murderers; but he accepts his obligations to the reader like a man.  All the characters of the potential murderers are presented in a brilliant sequence; he keeps nothing up his sleeve; every card lies face up on the table.  Yet what a problem!  Minute for Murder, if it doesn’t purge your soul of guilt, ought to purge Nicholas Blake’s for all the faults of its predecessors.  May he always write his detection in future with the same courage and receive our universal praise!

Spectator: His best yet.  All his characters literally leap to life.  Minute for Murder has that fine quality of English prose which distinguishes Mr. Blake’s work from that of any other writer.

Elizabeth Bowen: This is a character detective story, water-tight as to plot, but otherwise to be ranked as a first-rate novel.

John Betjeman: It is a first-class thriller – really first-class – funny into the bargain.

Daily Telegraph: His writing is always a pleasure and his new story is notable for some brilliant characterisation and a clever piece of detection.

J. B. Priestley: This brilliant detective novel.

Time and Tide: Its combination of excitement and technical mastery makes it his best yet.

Sunday Chronicle: …The writing is a joy and the detection treatment first-class.