- By Nicholas Blake
- First published: UK: Collins, 1939; US: Harper, 1939
If The Beast Must Die is quite dull, The Smiler with the Knife is the best cure, for this is one of Blake’s most exciting books. This book shows with touches of Orwellian genius how easy it would be for a dictator to rise to power in Britain, the motives for supporting that person and for ignoring the threat. The fate of civilization rests upon the shoulders of Georgia Strangeways, Nigel’s wife; she infiltrates the Fascist Conspiracy behind the crank cult of the English Banner. The book is thoroughly entertaining, although somewhat episodic in feel; and the Flemingesque tortures are rather nauseating. Georgia plays Mrs. Peel to perfection, ferreting out the plans of the crazed super-villain Lord Chilton Canteloe, “the most popular man in England,” who organises a man-hunt for her at the end. This chase has several diverting incidents on the way, such as the diverting Father Christmas incident and the hilarious Radiance Girls, before Georgia confronts her enemy in a dramatic and tense showdown; a case of “The Game Played in the Dark”. This is a superior thriller, with outstanding characterisation (even the usual mad scientist seems original), a tense finish, and a fascinating depiction of the political background.
It may not be reasonable to suppose that a notice from a Rural District Council to cut a hedge could cause any one much trouble – let alone alter the course of history, or that England might be saved by the cutting of a hedge. If Nigel and Georgia Strangeways had taken a cottage in any other county they wouldn’t have had to cut the confounded hedge themselves. If the sun had not come out that morning they’d probably have left the hedge for the gardener to do. If any one else had cut it he’d probably not have noticed the locket with the initials E.B…. But fortunately it was the keen-eyed Georgia who picked up the little piece of tarnished metal, a discovery that was to be the beginning of a most exciting adventure. Mr. Nicholas Blake in this superb story again proves himself without a rival at the difficult art of keeping readers on tenterhooks.
Nicholas Blake’s reputation as a brewer of super-thrillers has been more solidly established with each succeeding novel.
The reviewers called his last book, The Beast Must Die, “a ripping story” * … “exciting, with a brilliant kick at the finish”* “excellent super-literate baffler”.* The Manchester (England) Guardian declared: “It remains 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.”
The Smiler with the Knife is to be recommended only to those who can pass the life-insurance examiners. Inspired by a plot to set up a dictatorship in England in 194–, it offers Blake fans a full portion of thrills and a new and most beguiling heroine – Georgia, the clever wife of Nigel Strangeways. Her adventures in pursuit of a master-criminal, double-starred with surprise, lead her into sharp-witted conflict with a suave and sinister gentleman with whom she gambles for hre life and the fate of the Empire.
* Comments from N. Y. Herald Tribune “Books”; The Spectator (London); The Saturday Review of Literature.
Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Percy Ashley, 14th October 1939): The Smiler with the Knife is an agreeably written thriller, and may be unreservedly recommended to those who enjoy this type of novel. The heroine is Georgia Strangeways, the adventurous wife of Nigel, Mr. Blake’s amateur detective. She is invited by her husband’s uncle to lend her services towards thwarting the seemingly approaching triumph of a Fascist organisation under the leadership of Lord Chilton Cantaloe. She pretends to be separated from her husband, and soon obtains an introduction to Lord Chilton (or is it Lord Cantaloe?). He is apparently fascinated by her, but he is not as foolish as his conceit might suggest, and she has a hundred hair-breadth escapes before she steals his plans and returns unscathed to her husband’s arms. While one may regret that Mr. Blake has deserted the detective story proper for the thriller evidently plotted with his tongue in cheek, it must be admitted that by taking a little more effort there is no reason why Mr. Blake should not become the John Buchan of this war. His prose is very good, and he can create a tense atmosphere.