First published: UK, Collins, 1936; US, Harper, 1936, as Shell of Death
Nicholas Blake’s brilliant first novel, A Question of Proof, was a triumphant success. It combined excitement, humour and fine writing. These qualities are again outstanding in this new story. Once again the leading character is Nigel Strangeways, that very likeable young man who on leaving Oxford, where he had neglected Demosthenes in favour of Freud, turned to the profession of criminal investigator, the only profession which in his opinion gave scope for good manners and scientific curiosity. His uncle, Sir John Strangeways, Assistant Commissioner of Police, asks him to visit Fergus O’Brien, who has taken the tenancy of a country house in Somerset. O’Brien is a man of mystery, an airman whose exploits in the war are legendary, but who suddenly abandoned a life of dare-devil adventure to seek the seclusion of the English countryside. He has received some mysterious threatening letters; hence the genial Nigel’s protective presence. But as we listen on that first night at the Dower House to the cultured, resonant voice of O’Brien quoting from his famous Elizabethans, we feel we are in the presence of Tragedy.
“On the rare occasions afterwards when Nigel could be induced to talk about the fantastic and paradoxical case of the “Chatcombe Killings”, as the newspapers once termed them, he was wont to say that it had been solved by a professor of Greek and a seventeenth century dramatist.”
Like the later Case of the Abominable Snowman (1941), Thou Shell of Death derives its effects from new changes rung on old themes—the snow-bound country house, the group of unpleasant suspects with motives for murder, the anonymous death threats, and the murder disguised as suicide. As befits the satirical nature of the book, the tone is both more humorous and more consciously literate than the previous A Question of Proof (1935). The plot is, as always with Blake, surprising and clever: “the series of revelations they had just been hearing, like magnesium-flashes in a dark room, had only served to blind the eye. Each fresh clue seemed to lead in a different direction and then to break off in the hand before it had got them anywhere.” The method used to dispatch Knott-Sloman is ingenious, SPOILER “the nut was a delayed action shell and contained the kernel of the problem”; and the effective misdirection of the first (and false) solution followed by the really unexpected true solution is excellent. As usual in Blake, the ingenuity of the plot is made human by his keen insight into character: the victim Fergus O’Brien, and his mistress Georgia Cavendish, Nigel Strangeways’s future wife, “everything that a woman should be—attractively ugly, eccentric without being a frump, witty, a good cook, sensible and sensual, faithful, and a perfect seat—I am told—on anything from an armadillo to a camel”, are fine portraits—as fine a portrait as Vendice’s mock skull, used to dispatch the Duke, in the classic basis of the tale.
Times Literary Supplement (John Davy Hayward, 7th March 1936):
A LITERARY DETECTIVE
Those who have solved the simple problem of Nicholas Blake’s identity will not be surprised that his second detective story more than fulfils the promise of his first. It has all the virtues of culture, intelligence and sensibility that the most exacting connoisseur could ask of detective fiction. The plot is extremely subtle, the drama psychologically plausible, the setting and characters drawn with uncommon delicacy for this type of novel, and the quality of the writing is consistently good. Nigel Strangeways, the amateur detective, maintains that the solution of O’Brien’s death was solved for him by a professor of Greek (Philip Starling, an engaging Oxford don) and a seventeenth-century dramatist.
There is a valuable clue for a literary detective, particularly for one who sees the significance of O’Brien’s false attribution of a quotation, made on the eve of his death, and who knows where Nicholas Blake got his title from. It is almost true to say that O’Brien’s conduct in the last hours of his life gives the solution in a nutshell. But not quite. For clues and possible motives—and there are plenty of them—are alike inconclusive until more is known of O’Brien’s past than that he was a famous war “ace”.
Observer (Torquemada, 22nd March 1936):
On the jacket of Thou Shell of Death we are told that “Nicholas Blake” has been considered the most important poet of the younger generation. This need not worry us; for no poet is important until he is dead. During his lifetime he is just either a poet or not a poet, usually the latter. We are also informed that the late Colonel Lawrence told Mr. Winston Churchill that “Nicholas Blake” was the only great man in England. This—though I dislike both irrelevant attempts to put the wind up criticism—is more to the purpose, for the author of Thou Shell of Death returns the compliment by making a Lawrence-like figure his most important character and providing him with a spectacular death. By the time I had finished the book, the dexterous interlocking of two unusual crimes had quite destroyed a rather natural prejudice. The riddle indeed is even better than that asked in A Question of Proof, though it is not so spontaneous. That excellent first detective story, you may remember, showed its author promisingly at home in a preparatory school. All of the writing of Thou Shell of Death is intended to be clever. Some of it really is; the rest shows that the author can rise to public school level, and Sixth Form at that.
New Statesman & Nation (Ralph Partridge, 23rd May 1936):
MURDER OF NICHOLAS BLAKE
When “Nicholas Blake” produced his first detective story, A Question of Proof, it was adjudged on its intrinsic merits to be a very creditable performance, whoever “Nicholas Blake” might be. But, living as we do in an age of advertisement, we could hardly hope that his publishers would long conceal the fact that “Nicholas Blake” is better known to the world as Mr. Day Lewis, a serious young poet. On the dust cover of Mr. Day Lewis’s second detective story, Thou Shell of Death, Messrs. Collins make the maximum of capital out of the “mystery” of their author’s identity. When I saw the photograph with the features expunged, supported by a couple of tributes to Mr. X as a poet and a man, I was reminded of Steig’s cartoon of a little American boy catching his mother in the bath: “Why make a mystery of things, Mother?” Now that the unveiling ceremony is over, perhaps we may be left in peace to consider what addition Thou Shell of Death makes to Mr. Day Lewis’s value as “the most important poet of the younger generation” vide Spectator, and “the only great man in England” vide Colonel Lawrence—of Arabia (in case you’d forgotten). Well, the book is the product, I should almost say by-product, of a born writer, one whose very ideas are grammatical and whose thoughts are sentences. The gifts of nature are more in evidence here than in A Question of Proof and may show that Mr. Day Lewis is feeling more comfortably at home in his new medium. There is a most agreeable bite about the style which combines with the smoothness of the narrative like the ingredients of a sharp Hollandaise sauce. It is only after racing through the gay, light-hearted pages to the unpalatable end that doubts crop up whether the author is as well employed as he seems to think. Why dish up a detective plot with such gusto, when character-drawing and a running commentary on life are what appeal to him? For the crime is unworthy of the rest: Mr. Day Lewis betrays an impish desire to best the reader at all costs and has recourse to such mad hatter’s motives for his solution as to invalidate all his neat psychology. Perhaps Colonel Lawrence would have enjoyed the practical joke, because he too liked to go one better than anyone else, and yet could not bear to be thought to take his work too seriously. Incidentally, the whole plot is about the death of a sort of Colonel Lawrence. Thou Shell of Death can be recommended to all with complete confidence. Some will like it positively, and the rest will enjoy disliking it almost as much.
It is seldom indeed that we find a drama of detection which is also literature, but Thou Shell of Death is so brilliantly written that we are inclined to consider its author, Mr. A. E. W. Mason’s successor.