There’s Trouble Brewing (Nicholas Blake)

Rating: 3 out of 5.

‘It’s been a dirty, untidy case in most ways, even though it does add force to a certain well-worn phrase.’


‘There’s trouble brewing.’

This—Blake’s third novel—is a much more rewarding read second time round—have I matured, or is it the book? The book’s merits lie chiefly in three things: the memorably insane / vindictively evil victim, Eustace Bunnett, whose tyrannical behaviour at the brewery he controls allows Blake to express Socialist ideas, chiefly through the mouth of Nigel’s friend and host, Dr. Herbert Cammison; the brewery setting, which Nigel believes “seemed a series of temptations to anyone murderously inclined” (sure enough, murder is done at the brewery; in a particularly macabre scene, a skeleton is found in a copper); and the strong plot and solution, hinging on the very gruesome clue of false teeth, recalling Sayers“In the Teeth of the Evidence”, a story which shares a family resemblance with Blake’s novel. Nigel does not get on with the local policeman, the bullying Inspector Tyler, but the detection is solid and straightforward, with much investigation into alibis (much better handled than the egregiously dull Crofts), serial interviewing of suspects, and attempts to prove Eustace’s brother Joe guilty of the crime. Although it seems that “from fair beginnings the case is falling away to foul routine”, the detection process is wholly satisfying, supported by several bizarre and macabre murders (a sheet-covered armchair containing a battered corpse à la Peacock Feather Murders; the death of a ship, “a tortured corpse of metal”), and a good pace, although the book is perhaps too episodic, before the explosive climax at the brewery.

Blurb (UK)

We doubt whether in the course of the whole of this year we shall publish a better detective story than There’s Trouble Brewing.  Nicholas Blake’s rise to stardom has been meteoric.  His very first detective novel, A Question of Proof, was considered the best first detective novel since Crofts wrote The Cask.  His second, Thou Shell of Death, more than fulfilled him as a master in the field.  His wit is more pointed than ever, his dialogue and descriptive writing of even higher quality, and he has elaborated a plot which is one of the cleverest in the history of detection.  Mr. Blake has laid the scene of his murder in a brewery, and we may express the hope that the discovery of a very definite and unexpected body in the beer did not seriously damage the truth of the slogan, “North, South, East, West—Bunnett’s Beers Are Still The Best”.

Blurb (US)

“The detective interest of the book, though high, does not eclipse the excellent writing and character-drawing.” – The Times (London)

A dog was dropped to his death in a vat of boiling beer.  The brewer – a wretched man who invited hatred – disappeared shortly afterward, and in the vat where the unfortunate dog had met his end there was found the skeletal remains of a man.

Had Joe Bunnett killed his brother?  Was it Ariadne Mellors, a spinster with temperance principles who loved Joe?  Was it Gabriel Sorn, one of the brewer’s employees?  Was it the doctor?  All of them had ample reasons for delighting in the brewer’s death, as that most agreeable detective, Nigel Strangeways, was to learn.

The Spectator, London, says: “With his first mystery Nicholas Blake showed outrageous promise; with his second he stepped firmly into the front rank of contemporary detective novelists.”  This, his third, holds the author of A Question of Proof and Shell of Death securely on the Olympian heights.  For here is excitement and to spare in a baffling and original plot peopled by characters with a stout substance.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (Simon Harcourt Nowell Smith, 6th February 1937): Mr. Blake is a victim of coincidence.  It matters little that last month Mr. Rhode raised beer from its wearisomely frequent rôle of stimulant to amateur detective brilliance into the position of background of Death in the Hop Fields, and that, writing at the same time, Mr. Blake was doing much the same in his story of death in a brewery, published this week: the books have little else in common.  But it is unfortunate that the dénouement of another book, also published last month, should have hinged on the same ingenious falsification of evidence as does Mr. Blake’s.  It is unfortunate, because the reader of that other book will solve the problem of There’s Trouble Brewing too soon, and may so be inclined to underestimate the author.  In point of fact the author is at the head of the newer detective story writers, and this third book is his best.

To begin with, he writes well: he shows wit without facetiousness and culture without pedantry.  His plots are ingenious without over-elaboration and his characters more human than is usual in this genre.  Nigel Strangeways, his amateur detective, is a puzzling mixture of simplicity and penetration, but all the more real for that.  The conventions of detective writing have become fairly rigid; and as rigidity has come in, reality has too often gone out.  Mr. Blake follows all the necessary conventions, but is never cramped by them.

Observer (Torquemada, 14 February 1937): I have a feeling that Nicholas Blake is one of the Crime Club’s discoveries most worthy of watching, and watching with anxiety.  Of A Question of Proof, I said, without reserve, “there is no living writer of detective stories who will not have to look to his or her laurels if Mr. Blake can do it again.”  In Thou Shell of Death he did not, in my opinion, do it again.  If in There’s Trouble Brewing the story is not as good as the title, if, in fact, again he has not done it again, it is Mr. Blake’s misfortune, and emphatically not his fault.  I have seen it claimed that his book suffers because of the coincidental appearance of John Rhode’s excellent Death in the Hopfields.  This seems to me absurd.  But his tale does, in my opinion, suffer from two other coincidences: the fact that the Crime Club, when introducing Mr. Blake to us a couple of years ago, chose to mention Mr. Philip Macdonald’s The Rasp, and the fact that an Old Timer from Mexico happened to publish The Man Without a Head a few days before the appearance of There’s Trouble Brewing.  Yet, knowing the end almost from the beginning, I delighted in even the intentional longnesses of this witty and soundly written book.

Manchester Guardian (E.R. Punshon, 23rd February 1937): The first chapters of Mr. Nicholas Blake’s There’s Trouble Brewing, wherein Nigel Strangeways postures before a provincial literary society, may make some captious readers hope he is the destined victim of the coming murder.  When, however, a mysterious death occurs at the local brewery Nigel takes a leading part in the investigation that leads to two more murders.  Mr. Blake writes well, as befits one who is, we are told, a poet in another avatar, and shows that his interests are not entirely confined to crime, but it is always a sign of weakness in the plot when insanity has to be called in to explain the actions of the characters, nor will many readers fail to recognise the significance of the condition in which the unrecognisable corpse is discovered or experience any great surprise at the subsequent development.  Nor should Mr. Blake try to persuade his readers that there is no visible distinction between a sack containing a man and a sack filled with grain.

Spectator (E.B.C., 26th February 1937): Mr. Nicholas Blake, like Mr. Bailey, Mr. Bentley and a few others, writes the kind of detective novels in which the graces, and to some extent the muses, play a certain part.  In this kind the solution is usually provided by an amateur detective of cultivated and often literary tastes, whose wit provides the relief; in fact, such novels are highbrow in the best sense of the word.  I admit to a strong bias in favour of this kind; but even allowing for such bias, I can safely mark There’s Trouble Brewing alpha plus.  The graces are not allowed to interfere with the main business, which is the presentation, through the mind of Nigel Strangeways, of the mystery, its ramifications, and the clues.  Strangeways is invited, as author of a book on the Caroline poets, to read a paper to a literary society in a small Dorset town, where he stays with the doctor (an old Oxford acquaintance) and the doctor’s charming wife.  He is immediately engaged by Bunnett, the local brewer, a universally detested man, to enquire into the recent death of the brewer’s dog, who was found floating in the open copper of the brewery.  The next day, Bunnett’s (?) corpse is found in the closed copper.  There are several suspects, including the doctor.  The ensuing fun, which includes a second murder, is as grim, fast and lively as it should be, and the characterisation is good without overbalancing the design.  Now and then, especially … Mr. Blake’s wit declines into facetiousness, either from Wodehousian high spirits, or from deliberate … down to the middlebrows.  Otherwise, there is no fault to find.

Daily Telegraph: As good as its predecessors.  A work of wit, intelligence, sympathy and style.

Oxford Mail: He has hit another six…  The plot is really exciting, the technical details are authentic, and the characters have a solidity unusual in this kind of fiction…  The writing is beautiful and the wit as keen as ever…  In fact, the book is a delicious entertainment.

Daily Mail: Outstanding among recent murder mysteries.  It is extremely well written; the characters are people and not puppets, the detective work is neat and convincing, and leads to a logical but unexpected conclusion.

Illustrated London News: An excellent murder story…  The atmosphere of a small provincial town is cleverly employed to heighten the excitement of the bus and car.