Summarizing his views on why authors write mystery fiction, Nicholas Blake said frankly—in the essay “The Detective Story: Why?”—that money was certainly a major motive for most. His first mystery novel, A Question of Proof, Earl F. Bargainnier reports, was written because Blake could think of no other honest way to come up with one hundred pounds to pay for a leaking roof.
Like the many academics of his day and those who have followed him, however, Blake’s own pleasure as a reader of mysteries contributed to his pleasure in writing them. In the same essay, he also noted that every drug addict wants to introduce other people to the habit, a habit that allows a tamed, civilized, “a-moral” society to revel in the pleasures of imaginary murder. It is a pleasure possibly of great significance to anthropologists of the future, Blake predicted; in the twenty-first century, the detective novel would be studied as the folk myth of the twentieth century, the rise of crime fiction coinciding with the decline of religion. Without the outlet for the sense of guilt provided by religion, Blake proposed, individuals turn to the detective novel, with its highly formalized ritual, as a means of purging their guilt. That is why the criminal, the high priest of the ritual, and the detective, the higher power who destroys the criminal, appeal equally to readers; they represent the light and dark sides of human nature. Blake draws the parallel between the denouement of a detective novel and the Christian concept of the Day of Judgment, when the problem is triumphantly resolved and the innocent suspects are separated from the guilty.
The solemnity of such views underlying the addictive attraction of mystery fiction is counterbalanced in Blake’s novels by what Julian Symons called their “bubbling high spirits” and the author’s evident pleasure in “playing with detection.” That quality of glee comes through in the range of the twenty novels Blake wrote, which sometimes delightfully echo other great amateur detectives and novels, reassuring readers that they are in the company of a fellow addict. There is, for example, a hint of Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey in Blake’s Nigel Strangeways. A tall, lean man with sandy-colored hair that habitually falls over his forehead, guileless pale-blue eyes, and an abstracted look, Strangeways, like Wimsey, has that deceptive innocence and gently comic air that often lead suspects to confide in him. Similarly, though Strangeways is paid for his work, his preoccupation between cases appears to be that of the gifted dilettante. Strangeways meets his first wife on a case; a world-famous explorer, Georgia Cavendish, is, like Sayers’s Harriet Vane, an independent woman with a well-established career before marriage to the great amateur detective.
Other striking variations on the standard mystery include the first-person criminal in The Beast Must Die (1938), recalling Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), and the academic murder mystery construct of The Morning After Death (1966). Blake’s A Penknife in My Heart (1958) seems, on the surface, so similar to Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train (1950) that Blake inserted a note to say that it was only after his book had gone to press that he discovered the amazing coincidence, as he had not read her book or seen the film.
Such similarities merely highlight the elements shared by the body of mystery fiction produced during what is referred to as the Golden Age of the genre in the 1920’s, 1930’s, and 1940’s in Great Britain. As readers became more sophisticated and demanding, and as more writers entered the field, the quality of writing was raised. Blake was one of a handful of dons who took up the challenge of satisfying the exacting standards of this popular form, which required adherence to a formula as well as something fresh and challenging.
Blake’s analysis of this demand was that it required the juxtaposition of fantasy with reality that defines detective fiction and that there were two ways to achieve this juxtaposition: to put unreal characters into realistic situations or to put real characters into unreal or at least improbable situations. The second was the more prevalent, certainly in Blake’s fiction. It became a standard feature, according to LeRoy Lad Panek, for the great detective to be depicted as a sophisticated and cultured human being who might occasionally flounder and make a mistake.
To accommodate as well the period’s passion for puzzles, Panek reports, the Golden Age novel often contains maps, time tables, cautionary and informative footnotes, and other devices designed to engage the reader’s intellect in the story; these details make the great detective more realistic, ostensibly a person whose thinking process the reader can follow. Blake’s Strangeways often makes lists of motives and suspects or of questions about a case, thus neatly playing fair with readers by providing them with a full range of possibilities while simultaneously confusing them so thoroughly that the narrative interest is maintained because they still need Strangeways to pick among the plausible alternatives.
Though Blake’s Strangeways follows the tradition of the great detective—the intelligent, perceptive, and immensely likable amateur sleuth—the author’s complex other life...
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