Friday, April 18, 2014

Vintage Mystery #6

I read this book for the Vintage Mystery Bingo Reading Challenge 2014. The challenge is to read 6 or more Vintage Mysteries. All novels must have been originally written before 1960 and be from the mystery category.

I read this for N-6: Read a Book with an Animal in the Title

The Beast Must Die – Nicholas Blake, 1938

Cecil Day Lewis is remembered nowadays for being the father of Daniel Day Lewis. But he was also a classics and poetry professor and Poet Laureate. To augment his income, he wrote detective novels under the pen-name of Nicholas Blake. His series hero, based on poet W.H. Auden, was private investigator Nigel Strangeways.

The book opens so compellingly that I’ll wager a reader will plough through Part 1 in one sitting. Crime novelist Felix Lane announces to his diary and us his dear readers that he is going to kill a man, though Lane must determine who he is and where he lives. His quarry is the hit and run driver that killed his son, to whom his wife died giving birth.

I can’t give away the surprising twists in a review. Suffice to say, the series hero Nigel Strangeways tries to help Lane as he finds himself in a real jam. Nigel has teasing exchanges with the lugubrious Scot Inspector Blount. Nigel’s wife Georgia, a lady explorer and no shrinking violet, adds to the witty and mildly wacky conversations. Nigel and Georgia exchange learned wisecracks and allusions as if Nick and Nora Charles had classical educations. Nigel and Georgia also reminded me of that other famously devoted fictional couple Gomez and Morticia, though being English N. and G. aren’t so publicly crazy about each other.

Being a poet, Blake was a masterful writer. Being a contemporary of Auden, Huxley, and Isherwood, he was skeptical about the Victorians and their “excruciating antiquities.” The victim’s dining room:

It was a dark, heavy room, congested with pieces of Victorian walnut-wood furniture – table, chairs, and a huge sideboard – which had obviously been designed for a much bigger room and gave off a kind of aura of over-eating and stodgy conversation. The meaty, congested motif was continued in the heavy, maroon plush curtains, the faded but still repellant dark-red wallpaper, and the oil-paintings on the wall, which represented respectively a fox gorging itself on a semi-eviscerated hare (very realistic), a miraculous draught of fishes –lobsters, crabs, eels, cod and salmon laid out on a marble slab, and an ancestor of sorts who had evidently died of apoplexy or a surfeit of rich food.

Written in the late Thirties, this outstanding novel can be counted as a Golden Age mystery. However, it is by no means a cozy. The feelings of hatred and depression are intense, the victim is totally bad news, and there are no winners. This is for fans of Michael Innes, Josephine Tey, and John Bingham.

1 comment:

  1. I started this one at one point--but as you say the feelings of hatred and depression are intense and I don't think I was at point where I was ready to read it. But...the Strangeways books are absolute favorites, so I really need to go back and read this one completely.