Strangeways

I’m intrigued by poet Cecil Day-Lewis (and father of that other D-L) and his second life as crime writer Nicholas Blake. The mysteries of Nigel Strangeways are nicely, if unspectacularly written. Strangeways differs from most amateur sleuths in his being defiantly UN-eccentric. But there’s another key aspect to Blake’s mysteries which means the makers of the new version of The Beast Must Die might be struggling to find a sequel in any of the twenty extant Blake-Strangeways books.

Two of Blake’s novels have received more attention, particularly in the film world, than all the rest.

The Beast Must Die – nothing to do with werewolves – is the most popular of the novels. It’s an outlier, for a few reasons. Fair-play whodunits and cosy crime novels tend to keep emotion at a distance. The victims are usually either unpopular, dislikable characters (which provides lengthy suspect lists and obviates all that messy grief) or solitary figures without close dependents (or both). Or, if there are grieving loved ones, they’re shuffled off-stage as fast as decently arrangeable, or are portrayed so woodenly their bereavement has no disquieting effect on the reader. (I love how, in Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi mystery A Maze of Death, a character, noting the glassy underreaction of his fellow suspect/prospective victims in a Ten Little Indians scenario, deduces that they must all be amnesiac psychopaths, simply because they’re behaving exactly like the people in mystery novels always do.) In The Beast Must Die, the motivation for the murder is so distressing, and traumatic for the man involved, that it overwhelms the mystery aspect completely — so that the first two film versions, Román Viñoly Barreto’s Argentinian version of 1952, and Claude Chabrol’s French one of 1969, are able to excise Mr. Strangeways altogether, and the plot if anything gets better.

The other significant film connection with Blake is Orson Welles’ putative film of The Smiler with the Knife, abandoned in favour of what became CITIZEN KANE. This time, Blake himself largely dispensed with his protag, handing the story over to his plucky wife Georgia. She’s required to inveigle her way into the confidences of a fascist leader plotting a coup. Easy to see how Welles would have been interested in a political thriller like that, transposing the story to the US and casting Lucille Ball and himself as the heavy in a story that would have had aspects of NOTORIOUS avant la lettre.

Welles definitely definitely made the right choice for his film debut, but SMILER the movie remains an intriguing might-have-been. It might, actually, have provided its director with a solid commercial hit.

I can’t quite forgive Blake for killing off Georgia Strangeways between novels, though he gives Nigel a girlfriend later, the sculptor Clare Massinger, who’s quite good fun.

But the other aspect of Blake’s novels I’ve discovered is strongly negative: he can’t write mysteries. I have dim memories of a few of them I read a while back, but one, The Whisper in the Gloom (televised and Americanized and Disneyfied as The Kids Who Knew Too Much in 1980) depends on an inexplicable coincidence which really gets the reader wondering — but is left as an inexplicable coincidence at the novel’s end. Spoiler alert: it’s borrowed from Hitchcock’s THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, making the revised title very apt.

This seems like a big cheat, but The Ghastly Hollow and The Widow’s Cruise both play fair — the trouble is they’re amazing guessable. I rarely guess the solutions to mysteries, despite reading a lot of them, a bit about them, and having a sort of crack at it myself. Blake’s derivative side is evident in both books: TGH is a poison pen story possibly derived from Clouzot’s LA CORBEAU or Richard Llewellyn’s play Poison Pen, filmed in 1939; TWC is a kind of Bette Davis sister act. What Blake does with the stories is fairly original, I wouldn’t call him a plagiarist (though Gloom comes very close), it’s just that he utterly fails to hide his clues in plain view. He just leaves them lying in plain view, or actively thrusts them under our noses like an idiot magician forcing a card on us, but a card he really wants to conceal.

I can’t work out how Blake/Day-Lewis managed to spin out a career in mysteries as long as he did. His best two books have the least mystery, and every time the solving of the crime is central to the story, he muffs it. Still, I guess it kept him fed while he wrote his poetry, and kept his soon-to-be-distinguished son clad, so that was worthwhile. I admire his The Poetic Image (1947) as a work of criticism.

His books are very readable but I must stop reading them because they don’t satisfy. He’s like the opposite of John Dickson Carr: Carr’s impossible crimes, colourful detectives and jaunty dialogue are far more uplifting, far less real, and he plays far less fair. But at least you’ll never guess who done it.

5 Responses to “Strangeways”

  1. ROGER ALLEN Says:

    Blake’s last book, The Private Wound, is probably his best, I think. Again, not much mystery, but a fascinating study of amour fou, set in the West of Ireland in 1939.
    The interesting thing about Strangeways is that he was based in many ways on Lewis’s friend W.H. Auden. I wonder if he was going to be portrayed as gay, but Blake lost his nerve and gave way.

  2. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Welles had planned to star Lucille Ball in “The Smiler with the Knife.”
    Lucy’s connection to Orson continued over the course of both their careers. He appeared on “I Love Lucy” doing his magic act — floating her in mid-air. And she and Desi produced his marvelous TV film “The Fountain of Youth.”

    As for Day-Lewis, here’s a smiler with a key:

  3. Welles on Lucy at a later date: “She was a whore, you know.” Which may have been true, but his estimation of her as a comedy megatalent is more pertinent.

    I wish Welles had gotten a series out of Fountain of Youth. I don’t imagine it could have sustained his interest for more than a season, but that alone would have been enough to double his film output.

  4. The Audenesque aspects of Strangeways, it’s been suggested, were progressively stripped away in subsequent books. He has more character in the first novel, but seems to be straight because he meets Georgia quite early on. Of course it would have been perfectly possible to keep his sexuality under wraps: Poirot, Dr Fell, Marple, and Holmes have no romances in their canonical adventures, it was hardly de rigeur for the amateur sleuth to have amatory adventures.

  5. David Ehrenstein Says:

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