Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2236
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 brought a distinctive note to this Golden Age tradition. Not only an active and highly respected poet, Blake was also a leftist; he considered himself a revolutionary. Bargainnier suggests that in the battle between the poetic and political impulses within Blake, the poet won. Indeed, though he never formally gave up his membership in the Communist Party, Blake ceased to be involved actively. Yet the conflict between the contemplative and active life appears, as Bargainnier points out, in the recurring theme of schizophrenia in the mystery novels; in more than one novel, a character will wonder if he unknowingly committed a crime because there is another, hidden side to his nature.
Blake’s leftist leanings also appear in his attitude toward the detective novel. In the essay referred to above, Blake writes that there is a class bias in crime fiction; the detective novel, with the hero almost always on the side of law and order, appeals almost exclusively to the upper and professional classes, who have a stake in maintaining a stable society. The lower-middle and working classes read thrillers, where the criminal of the thriller is often its hero and nearly always a romantic figure, a descendant of the Robin Hood myth.
One way in which Blake bridged this gap he perceived between the classes in their choice of reading matter was probably also a result of his mind-set as a poet, a mind-set that more than any other genre calls for John Keats’s “negative capability,” that ability to subdue one’s own personality and give onself up to another’s. Consequently, Blake’s novels evince an unusual sympathy, even admiration, for the criminal. Enumerating the fates of the murderers in Blake’s novels, Bargainnier notes that more than half of the criminals commit suicide or are killed by others—that is, removed from the scene before they can face the established judicial system.
Following the conventions of the detective novel, the plot in a Blake novel unfolds over a relatively short period of time and the cast of characters is confined. What characterizes Blake, however, is his long view of the genesis of a crime. In novel after novel, Strangeways will learn information about characters, buried for twenty or thirty years, that serves as clues to the present situation. Thus, in Thou Shell of Death (1936), Strangeways finds the key to the death of a national air hero by investigating a mysterious incident in his past when he was an obscure handyman in Ireland; in End of Chapter (1957), he tracks down the cause of an intensely intimate rivalry between his co-workers to their roles in a tragic case of doomed romance; in The Corpse in the Snowman (1941), he picks up hints of the tragedy that changed a high-spirited young girl into a reckless drug addict.
The emphasis on the past is apparent in another feature of Blake’s works. Bargainnier points out that an unusually large number of children and teenagers appear in the novels. Sometimes the youths are directly involved in the crime, such as the little boy whose death in a hit-and-run incident in The Beast Must Die precipitates the story or the children whose lives become the battleground for control in The Corpse in the Snowman; the fate of a beloved child long dead motivates the run of malice and murder in End of Chapter. In The Widow’s Cruise (1959), The Morning After Death, and Head of a Traveler (1949), the conditioning of childhood experiences and tendencies becomes, similarly, important to analyzing the behavior of the adults in the present.
Golden Age fiction was characterized by its highly literate quality. Panek notes that the detective novelists, appealing to their well-educated readers, had characters who cited “[Charles] Dickens by the cartload and [William] Shakespeare by the ton.” A certain amount of banter about writers and writing and a self-referential quality was common. Here again, the well-read poet C. Day Lewis permeates the writing of Blake the mystery novelist. Julian Symons remarks that Blakebrought to the Golden Age detective story a distinctly literary tone, and also in his early books a Left Wing political attitude. Both of these things were unusual at the time. I can remember still the shock I felt when on the first page of Blake’s first book, A Question of Proof, T. S. Eliot’s name was mentioned. (I should be prepared to offer odds that there are less than a dozen crime stories written during the decades between the wars in which the name of any modern poet appears.)
It is not only that literary allusions abound in Blake’s writing but also, more important, that an intimate knowledge of literature assumes a major role in the solution of some of the mysteries. Toward the end of Thou Shell of Death, for example, Strangeways berates himself for not immediately recognizing the significance of the victim’s quoting a line from a Jacobean play. The poet’s propensity for metaphor, to yoke unlike things together, leads Strangeways, in The Widow’s Cruise, to link the nervous behavior of swans, which he had observed months before, to the strange behavior of two sisters he encounters on a cruise.
Head of a Traveler
Though The Private Wound (1968), his last novel, is the most autobiographical of Blake’s works, it is in Head of a Traveler (the title itself is a line from A. E. Housman’s parody of a Greek tragedy) that the influence of the poet on the novelist becomes central. The novel begins with Strangeways’s journal, as he jots down his impressions of a visit to the estate of a distinguished English poet, Robert Seaton. Strangeways notices the “cataleptic trance of white and yellow roses” and is himself entranced by the house:It was like getting out into a dream. Walking past the front of the house, glancing in at the drawing-room windows, one might have expected to see a group of brocaded figures arrested in courtiers’ attitudes around a Sleeping Beauty, the stems of roses twining through their ceremonious fingers.
In this novel, as in so many of Blake’s novels, Strangeways’s early perceptions are prescient. The dreamlike, fairy-tale atmosphere of a Sleeping Beauty he picks up from the house does indeed prove to account for much inexplicable behavior on the part of both the poet, who has been pretending to be busy with a long poem, and of his wife, whose two main loves in life are the house, which once belonged to her family, and her husband’s work, which she and the rest of the family protect with an awe that makes it impossible for Seaton to write. For Strangeways, the house is animated:The fairy-tale house, so unreal when first he had seen it, was still less real to-day; then it had been the fabulous exuberance of its roses, the trance of high summer; now it was as if Plash Meadow, having drunk too deep of horrors, suffered from a blighting hangover.
He realizes that the poet’s work is at the “very roots of the case.” A crucially suggestive clue for him is the sense that only since the murder of his brother has Seaton finally written a great poetic sequence. By not only piecing together his observations but also, more important, trusting his instinctive understanding of a poet’s life and personality, Strangeways does, finally, deconstruct the false suicide note to clear the poet of murder and find the truth. The image of catalepsy from the first page is repeated:Robert jumped at the opportunity to leave Plash Meadow, to break the cataleptic trance it had thrown upon his Muse, to return to the conditions under which—however grim they had been—he had in the past produced poetry. To kill Oswald would be to destroy his last chance of freeing the creator in himself.
This novel, which ends with Strangeways unable to decide whether he should report the true murderer, displays all the distinctive qualities of Blake’s detective fiction: It is sophisticated, lyrical, psychologically acute, and, withal, high-spirited. His novels were the result of the needs of the poet fulfilled by the talents of the mystery writer.
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