C. Day Lewis Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis
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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C. Day Lewis Poetry: British Analysis
During his Oxford years and the period of his preparatory school teaching, Cecil Day Lewis published his first volumes of poetry: Beechen Vigil, and Other Poems, followed by Country Comets. Both constitute a high level of juvenile verse, the products of a student who had studied much about poets and poetry but who had learned little about life and had experienced even less. The two books demonstrate, however, that, prior to the age of twenty-five, Day Lewis had essentially mastered the craft of poetry. Further, the two volumes established that for him, a book of verse would emerge as a unified, thematic whole rather than merely as a collection of miscellaneous pieces.
The poet’s earliest conflicts arose out of his inability to distinguish clearly the old values of his present and past worlds from the newly emerging ones of the present and the future. In two poems, for example, “Juvenilia” and “Sketches for a Portrait,” the young man of privileged and comfortably secure economic class confronts a fundamental social problem: whether to continue to accept without question the comfortable conventions of his class, or to look beyond both the class and the comforts in an attempt to understand and then to identify with the problems of people who exist totally outside his sphere of experience and values. Day Lewis inserts into the poetic environment high garden walls that protect the young man’s neatly manicured lawn from the grime of the outside, but, certainly, the day must come when the dirt will filter through the wall and smudge the laurel. Then what?
The answers to that question did not come quickly or easily. Instead, in three separate volumes, Day Lewis portrayed the complexity of human experience as it unfolded in several stages. The first, titled Transitional Poem, represents a form of self-analysis wherein the poet initially rejected the romantic nature worship of the preceding century as no solution to what he perceived as the mind’s “own forked speculation.” At the age of twenty-five, Day Lewis had little or no sympathy for those among his contemporaries who appeared as “intellectual Quixotes,” propagandizing abstract values and superficial critical criteria. As a poet he sought, instead, to harness the chaos of a disordered world and beget a new age built upon the “crest of things,” upon the commonplace “household stuff, stone walls, mountains and trees/ [that] Placard the day with certainties.” Further, the word of the artist, of the twentieth century poet, cannot be allowed, like the Word of God, to stand remote and free from actuality. Instead, poetry must return to life: “Wrenching a stony song from a scant acre/ The Word still justifies its Maker.”
From Feathers to Iron
Two years later, in 1931, Day Lewis continued his spiritual self-analysis in From Feathers to Iron. The title of the piece came from an observation by John Keats: “We take but three steps from feathers to iron,” in reference to the maturation process from a theoretical perception of life to an actual understanding of human existence. In this series of lyric poems, Day Lewis considered the theme of experience within the context of marriage and parenthood. Love, he maintained, cannot endure without the presence of children; two years seems the limit for the love of husband and wife to be “marooned on self-sufficiency,” and thus new dimensions must be added to the union. The poems in the volume concern fertility, the passion and the pain involved with the anguish of birth, and the hope that fatherhood may end what the poet terms the “indeterminate quarrel between a fevered head and a cold heart.” The narrator of the volume occupies the long period of expectation with poems to both mother and child, while the final days seem to him “numb with crisis, cramped with waiting”; after man and wife have, together, explored the extremes of pain and fear, deliverance finally arrives and the multifaceted experience draws to a close. Day Lewis may well have been the first to attempt, in verse, a serious analysis of marriage as it relates to birth and parenthood, placing it squarely within the context of the modern world, in the midst of its complexities and technological by-products.
The Magnetic Mountain
Careful readers may sense, in the last of the three works—The Magnetic Mountain—the influences of Gerard Manley Hopkins and W. H. Auden. Day Lewis divided the piece into four major sections, the beginning being especially reminiscent of Hopkins’s “The Windhover.” The poet invokes a “kestrel joy, O hoverer in wind,” as he searches “beyond the railheads of reason” for a “magnetic mountain,” for truth. He proposes to follow his friends—Auden and Rex Warner—along the political path toward truth, where, in the second section, he surveys some politically reactionary types: a clinging mother, a conventional schoolmaster, a priest, and a “domestic” man. Then, in the third section, Day Lewis exposes what he believes to be the real enemies of progress: the flattering spell of love, popular education and information, the “religion” of science, and false romantic ideals. The poem ends with a series of lyrics extolling a social effort governed by the duality of twentieth century man—as soarer (“windhover”) and as an earthbound creature. Criticism of The Magnetic Mountain focuses upon the issue of influence; some critics maintain that it contains too...
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