Archive for Nicholas Blake

Stranger Ways (Dome’s Drone)

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , on October 14, 2021 by dcairns

Followed up my Nicholas Blake reading by actually watching The Beast Must Die, the recent TV adaptation. A really,really strong performance by Cush Jumbo as the avenging mother (a father in the book) — she gets a long-held close-up in episode one which was the main thing that kept me watching. A typically good performance by Jared Harris as the titular beast — he seemed to be using more of his famous dad’s energy than usual. And, as in the book, the detective hero, Nigel Strangeways, played by Billy Howle, is a bit of a dud. Absent from all the really key scenes, robbed of the task of solving a mystery for us, he seems like an unnecessary remnant, a vestigial toe of the cosy crime story in the novel, and all the efforts of screenwriter Gaby Chiappe to make him interesting — chiefly by giving him a case of PTSD — come to nothing. It’s not the actor’s fault. I think when you define a task — as I think those involved have done here — as “make something interesting” — you’re already on course to lose, because you’re taking something you see as boring and trying to hang tinsel on it.

I see that Chiappe also wrote THEIR FINEST, which I previously detested. Sorry. I will avoid future writings from this author because it just feels mean. I didn’t set out to hate-watch it. Although, this is an improvement. In the plus camp, the show MOSTLY avoids the leaden exposition that plagues British TV writing (I don’t think the boom in US quality TV has inspired anything comparable over here), the real protagonist’s story is compelling — meanwhile Strangeways spends three episodes trying to solve a broken window — director Dome Karukoski keeps things expansive and propulsive whenever possible — the reliance on drone shots doesn’t feel too hackneyed — already the drone feels as tiresomely ubiquitous as the ’70s helicopter, but it can still work — the modernisation of Blake’s yarn is skillfully done. And yet — the series doesn’t have what Blake’s novel had, that genuinely heartbreaking quality of a bereaved parent. It’s curious how that is absent entirely, given the leads’ sure-handedness.

Strangeways

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 12, 2021 by dcairns

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.

Page Seventeen II: Die Harder

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 20, 2021 by dcairns

As they sank into the darkness I felt a strange chill, and a lonely feeling came over me; but a cloak was thrown over my shoulders, and a rug was thrown over my knees, and the driver said in excellent German:-

“This is the example. There was during my lifetime in the town of Maduara, the birthplace of the philosopher Apuleius, a witch who was able to attract men to her chamber by burning a few of their hairs along with certain herbs upon her tripod, pronouncing at the same time certain words. Now one day when she wished by this means to win the love of a young man, she was deceived by her maid, and instead of the young man’s hairs, she burned some hairs pulled from a leather bottle, made out of a goatskin that hung in a tavern. During the night the leather bottle, full of wine, capered through the town up to the witch’s door. This fact is undoubted. And in sacraments as in enchantments it if the form which operates. The effect of a divine formula cannot be less in power and extent than the effect of an infernal formula.”

“Many a man in love with a dimple makes the mistake of marrying the whole girl,” was James’s gleeful contribution.

And that was why he had never had his collar felt. As far as he was concerned the culprit was someone totally and absolutely unknown to him despite the shocking litter of relics, the smell, a head from time to time that stood around on an old plate for a while until the pong really got too fierce and it had to be junked. There were even moments, when he had read the exploits of this person in the press, when he had muttered to himself, You bet, this bastard’s got to be caught, he’s fucking animal. True, he had fleeting feelings that whoever had gutted this poor little bat here on page one was some other geezer that he might know just vaguely, he wasn’t sure, but didn’t he go out with a very nice-looking dark feller that he met in the boozer from time to time and then they both went out on a dragging spree? He would have to have a word with this feller next time they met, whatever his name was, he probably had lots. Still, give the mate a bit of margin – after all, just like himself, he was only going for a stroll, ripping off a bit of bird, it was the kind of thing the whole world did the whole bleeding time, why be choked if a bit of vinegar gets upset?

He wasn’t just black like a Negro, either; he was much blacker than that; he was he was black in the same way the night is: in fact, he was so black that anyone anywhere near him could hardly see anything. Just as a lamp gives out light, he gave out dark – and his name was Joe.

“Yis, maaster, ‘tes right,” Joe Sweetbread whined vivaciously. “Ghoost up to Yaarnold Cross. I seen en. Heh-heh. Churning butter. Poor Maid.”

Humanity is much more complex than any machine. An author can describe much about mankind and still leave much to his readers.

Seven paragraphs from seven pg. 17s from seven books distributed randomly about my flat.

Dracula by Bram Stoker; Penguin Island by Anatole France; Center Door Fancy by Joan Blondell; I Was Dora Suarez by Derek Raymond; The Spider’s Palace by Richard Hughes; The Smiler with the Knife by Nicholas Blake; Two classics by HG Welles: The Time Machine; The War of the Worlds, introduction by Isaac Asimov.