First published: UK, Collins, 1953; US, Harper, 1953
Nicholas Blake is one of the really outstanding writers of detective fiction to-day. He writes all too seldom, but here is one of his best. An eminent financier, Sir Archibald Blick, asks Nigel Strangeways to investigate a plague of anonymous letters that has stricken his native village in Dorset. Second only to Nigel’s passionate interest in crime is his interest in people. There are many to intrigue him in Prior’s Umborne: Sir Archibald’s two sons, the engaging but eccentric Stanford and the industrious, hag-ridden Charles; the two lovely but unpredictable Chantmerle sisters named Celandine and Rosebay; the unorthodox and love-torn vicar; and the Bible-thumping son of the village postmistress. His reading of these characters is to stand him in good stead when Celandine receives an abominable birthday-present, and murder follows. In a most dramatic dénouement, he reveals the motives behind a particularly baffling crime, which started, and ends, in an old disused quarry of sinister aspect.
Average for Nicholas Blake, excellent by most other writers’ standards. It’s competent and entertaining, but we expect more than competence from Nicholas Blake. Everything about the book is taken from the stock cupboard: the quietly idyllic village (this one, Prior’s Umborne, is in Dorset, although it is found in a thousand books under as many names and in as many places), its poison-pen, the unpleasantly arrogant financier who quarrels with the villagers and is found dead in the quarry, his two sons (one of whom is eccentric), the crippled beauty, her highly-strung sister and the vicar. Only the Dickensian Daniel Durdle, leading light of the Plymouth Brethren, is particularly original. Strangeways is fairly routine; he is hired by the victim to investigate the poison pen, discovers who it is (the identity should not come as much of a surprise to the reader) well before the halfway mark, and then, his client dead, sets about investigating the murder. Nigel is hampered by romantic complications, he detects competently but unexcitingly from timetables and alibis, although there are a few psychological and literary clues, including an M.R. Jamesian nightmare and some quotes from Tennyson’s Maud. The reader (who will probably tumble to the murderer’s identity, concealed by one of the oldest tricks in the book, quite early on in the piece) may be surprised that Superintendent Blount, even though his “Pickwickian exterior camouflaged a mind as ruthlessly purposeful as a guided missile”, chases up so many wrong trees, and that Nigel takes so long to discover the particularly glaring truth. There is a particularly fine climax, an effective contrast between the careful logic of Nigel Strangeways on the one hand and mob violence around the quarry on the other—which partly makes up for a trudge through alibis and stock situations.
Times Literary Supplement (Miss B.J.M. Folliot, 1st May 1953):
Welcome as a new detective story from Mr. Nicholas Blake must always be, The Dreadful Hollow is, it must be admitted, rather disappointing. The poison-pen theme has been treated with success by most of our mystery writers; Mr. Blake, however, has reverted to a style of writing and exposition common enough in pre-war days but below his usually high standard. Nigel Strangeways is engaged by an eminent and peculiar financier to investigate the goings-on in a Dorsetshire village where the financier’s two sons, the two dispossessed daughters of the squire, a sinister postmistress, her canting son, and a passionate vicar are all seething quietly together. There is murder past and murder present, plenty of atmosphere (but not enough scenery), melodrama and fiendish but improbable ingenuity. In spite of a detailed time-table of suspects’ movements, the solution seems complicated and a little arbitrary. And where is the delightful Georgia Strangeways, without whom Nigel is only half himself?
Observer (Maurice Richardson, 3rd May 1953):
Nigel Strangeways investigating poison-pen epidemic in hypersophisticated Dorset village. Suspects include an egomaniacal cripple and a Betjemanical engineer. Creaks a bit; especially towards the end, but grips tight. Seldom has the Oxford Professor of Poetry’s gift for combining Christyish pastiche with cultivated verisimilitude been better displayed.
Norman Blood, Time and Tide:
The book is so well written that one reaches the macabre dénouement in the most agreeable and effortless manner imaginable.
Christopher Pym, Manchester Daily Dispatch:
Nothing that Nicholas Blake writes is without distinction… I shouldn’t miss it.
First-rate whodunnit, original in construction, swift in tempo, convincing and enthralling.