First published: UK, Collins, 1938; US, Harper, 1938
Nicholas Blake’s advent among the front rank of detective-story writers has been remarkable for the note of freshness and distinction he has introduced. His prose, dialogue and characterisation are of a standard all too seldom reached in crime fiction; he has a novel angle of approach which freshens his detection as it does his prose; and he really can invent a wickedly brilliant plot. THE BEAST MUST DIE is nothing less than a triumph.
It is the story of a man – a widower – whose little boy is knocked down by a car and killed. The motorist, driving through the village at a mad pace, had not stopped to face the charge of manslaughter, and the police are unable to trace either the car or its driver. So the father decides to take the law into his own hands; if the police can’t find his son’s murderer, he will; and he’ll go further than that, he’ll kill the murderer himself. The beast must die. And so he begins a diary of his search for his son’s murderer; and it is this diary that we read.
He finds himself eventually staying in the man’s own house as his guest. He plans a perfect “accidental murder.” The stage is set. Everything is going well. His victim is now defenceless within his group. And then follows what is perhaps the most brilliant twist that has ever been given to a detective novel.
A wickedly brilliant plot underscores this murder-mystery in that rare find – a really original contribution to detective fiction. It is the story of a father who dedicates himself to finding and killing the road-hog who murdered his son. And it is told in cultivated prose, with the subtlety and deftness that mark Nicholas Blake (the pseudonym of C. Day Lewis) as a writer of achieved standing.
A remarkable English prose has already stamped The Beast Must Die as a good novel and an extraordinarily good thriller, and the best of Mr. Blake’s four detective stories:
“Head and shoulders above the general ruck of crime novels, ends with a genuinely surprising twist.” – The Times
Ä new milestone on the road of detective fiction.” – Observer
“Original in conception and masterly in execution. An exciting story with a brilliant kick at the finish. Mr. Blake’s prose style has a natural and easy grace. The Beast Must Die is the best novel he has written.” – Spectator
“One more proof that in the hands of a really first-class writer the detective novel can safely challenge comparison with any other variety of fiction.” – Manchester Guardian
The best known of Blake’s books, although not his best, this is the classic example of a book adored by the critics for its psychology, when largely lacking in merit. Although the characters are well drawn to begin with, if dwindling into ciphers towards the end, the plot is quite poor, for it is borrowed from Anthony Berkeley’s Second Shot (1930) and Henry Wade’s Mist on the Saltings (1933). Nigel Strangeways does not shine as detective, for his investigations merely go over ground we have been over already traversed, and the result is boredom.
The best thing about it is the 1066-esque questionnaire.
Times Literary Supplement (Simon Harcourt Nowell Smith, 12th March 1938):
Apart from a whopping coincidence near the start, this is the best constructed of Mr. Blake’s four well-constructed detective stories. It begins with 100 pages of the diary of an intending murderer (Cairnes, whose small son had been killed by a motorist who did not stop and whom the police failed to trace): in Part II the intended victim escapes: by Part III the victim has died a violent death—whether by his own hand, or by Cairnes’s, or by a handful of other possible suspects, being the problem which Nigel Strangeways, amateur detective, and Inspector Blount, professional, set out to solve. Problem and solution are both admirably worked out. Mr. Blake has always been a stylist—let the reader watch his style this time with particular care.
Observer (Torquemada, 13th March 1938):
MILESTONE IN FELIX LANE
There can be no doubt that Nicholas Blake sets up The Beast Must Die as a new milestone—and in spite of the number of travellers there are only few such stones—on the road of detective fiction. He is the first author, as far as I am aware, to use his knowledge of the psychology, not only of his characters, but also of his readers, to confound the latter. I must not say more than that he sells his prime red herring less as a fishmonger than as an analyst of sensitive icthyophobes. There are many other novel brilliancies—I weigh the word as I use it—of general method and particular cunning. We read a hundred pages of the diary of Felix Lane, an intending murderer, and then a scant twenty-five pages in which we are given from the outside the failure of his laudable scheme. This short section is impeccably and doubly lighted, with truth by what has gone before, and with grotesque by what comes after. The rest of the book is another adventure of Nigel Strangeways (of the Campion-Travers school), and I think it is any money that you will find it, apart from an avoidable and minor clumsiness in the matter of a teashop, entirely without fault. But I also think it possible that a minority of readers may find their joy in this remarkable tour de force a little diminished by one aspect of it. The diary, which is, by the way, rich in pleasant quotation, reveals Felix Lane as often unproductively sneering, often bumptiously pleased at being able to see half-an-inch further through a brick wall than the average oaf. We salute the diary as sound portraiture, and then are dashed to find ink spots from the same pen on certain later and in-Felix pages of the book. Also, Sellar-Yeatman humour cannot afford even a touch of arthritis.
Absolutely first class.