Monday, December 22, 2014

Vintage Mystery #38

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 G-5:  An Academic Mystery

A Question of Proof – Nicholas Blake, 1935

This straightforward mystery premiers PI Nigel Strangeways. Strangeways’ ability to charm while he grills people calls to mind Lord Peter, but without the fatuous dottiness, mercifully. His penchant for drinking tea all day long identified him, for those in the know at the time, with poet W.H. Auden.

Set in an English prep school, the story offers fertile ground for a realistic examination of a closed society within a closed society. That is, the masters (teachers) circle the wagons when parents are around. The boys form their own secret society to raise hell and enforce conformity. As teenage boys are still wont to do, they coin their own slang terms for misfits and deviants, such as “oick” and “chivver.” Cecil Day Lewis (has real name) has clearly drawn from his year-long experience teaching at Summer Fields, a prep school in Oxford, so we readers can’t expect more authority on this score.

Lewis/Blake knew his audience required a higher level of literacy and reasoning so he peppers his text with Latin and French tags that drive us to the web for translations, not to mention allusions to the Bard and the Greek classics. This is not a thriller like Smiler With A Knife nor is it as relentless as The Beast Within. I found the most likeable characters to be the boys, who are presented with a realistic mixture of naïve openness to and alert mistrust of the adult world.

Malcolm Noble, an expert on vintage mysteries says that in this novel, Blake shows that it is possible to write an effective detective story within the conventions of vintage mysteries, without overplaying social comment or abnormal psychology. I say, that the psychological explanation of the perp’s motivation is so inane and improbable that Blake meant it to be a parody of the psychological reveal.

Highly recommended for fans of Golden Era mysteries. In Twelve Englishmen of Mystery, Earl F. Bargainnier says this novel was written because Blake couldn’t think up any other way to make a hundred pounds to pay for a leaking roof without attracting the attention of the police. So, necessity really is the mother of invention. And a 15-book series starring a memorable detective.

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