Originally published 1958
Hammer was ruthless and predatory; he needed money quickly, and he would get it if a certain person died. “We might,” he suggested to Ned Stowe, “make a contract for the disposal of each others’ rubbish.”
Ned was not ruthless – but he was desperate. Passionately in love with the beautiful, copper-haired Laura, he was tied to a neurotic, clinging wife. He had reached the end of his tether.
This is the story of the “contract” made between Hammer and Stowe – the design for two motiveless murders; a story that begins ingeniously and then grows progressively in tension as the full horror and consequences of the “contract” are ever more realistically described.
Perhaps it is a consequence of my recent In GAD We Trust podcast appearance (plug, plug, plug) but I have of late found myself even more drawn to purchasing and reading inverted crime stories. This late standalone effort by Nicholas Blake is one such find and seems to be one of the lesser-known works in his oeuvre.
The book concerns a scheme to trade murders. And yes, it does have a strong resemblance to an earlier work – more on that in a moment.
Playwright Ned Stowe is spending a brief holiday on the Norfolk coast with his mistress. She is anxious for him to make a decision about their future but he cannot imagine his wife – who has supported him financially for years – granting him a divorce. In his frustration he makes a comment about how he wishes she were dead.
That remark is overheard by Stuart Hammer who later approaches Ned. During a sailing trip together he suggests that they each ‘dispose of each others’ rubbish’. He proposes that he will kill Ned’s wife if Ned will take care of his uncle. After initially being repulsed by the suggestion the pair work up a plan and we follow them as they try to bring into effect.
I suspect that almost everyone reading this will recognize the concept from Patricia Highsmith’s classic novel, Strangers on a Train. Apparently the publishers were aware enough of the similarities that there is a preface in some editions in which the author acknowledges the similarities but suggests this was coincidence.
While I think that the two books share some very similar plot beats, the two works do end up feeling quite distinct in theme, style and tone. To illustrate that requires a little discussion of some aspects of those aspects both novels that some may feel borders on spoiling them – particularly Strangers on a Train – but I have tried to keep the points as broad as possible.
Highsmith’s novel is ambiguous about whether the reader should think Guy Haines guilty of the murder of his wife. The conversation between Guy and Charles feels somewhat hypothetical. Blake’s novel is far clearer about Ned’s complicity in the plan to kill his wife. He understands the implications, devises a plan and shows his consent to it after the fact.
We may understand (though not condone) Ned’s moral weakness, particularly once we see how dysfunctional and cruel his marriage has become, however I do not think we want to see him survive in the same way we do with Guy Haines. His guilt is too clear, even if he subsequently experiences some regret.
Similarly Blake also gives us a very clear sense of Stuart Hammer’s character, outlining him as a determined and decisive brute as opposed to the drunken, guilt-ridden mother’s boy found in Highsmith’s novel. We are never challenged to like Hammer – he is presented as manipulative, chauvinistic and predatory from the start. Nothing we learn later makes us like him any more.
For Highsmith the ambiguity and fluidity of Guy and Bruno’s senses of guilt is the point. Over the course of the novel they become interdependent – the only people capable of understanding and supporting each other, yet their disgust at themselves and each other drags them down.
Blake’s killers live much more separate existences and are drawn together far less often. While Stuart Hammer’s presence is felt at points throughout the novel, Ned, and his own decisions, are our clear point of focus. A consequence of this is that Blake’s novel feels driven more by the plot than the exploration of his protagonists’ emotional states (though that is still a factor).
One of the aspects of Blake’s novel that is most interesting to me is the presentation of Ned’s wife, Helena. Our earliest experiences of her are through Ned’s own feelings, both those he expresses and the ones that are described to us in the narration. As such we have an idea about who she is prior to encountering her for ourselves and to some extent what we see of her seems to confirm our expectations.
In subsequent chapters however Blake manages to make her into a fuller and more complex character. This not only affects our reading of the characters and the situation, it also prompts some interesting thematic discussion about the ways creative types might interact with one another.
Similarly his presentation of the other woman, Ned’s mistress Laura, is also more complex than it initially appears (though she is the least developed part of the triangle). I think some of the more interesting questions the book raises are those about our choices of partner and I certainly was left wondering about the nature of their attraction. Does he really love her or is it the danger than intrigues him? Blake’s novel raises these but never voices a definitive answer, leaving it to the reader to decide.
For obvious reasons I will avoid describing the conclusions of the two novels but I will say that while they have similarities, Blake’s feels punchy and more action-focused. I feel that this is once again a consequence of the less ambiguous characterization and it suits the tone and themes of this story well.
Having focused so much on the comparison between these two books, I want to finish by discussing my chief source of pleasure in this novel: Blake’s writing. He is able to craft some wonderfully expressive turns of phrase such as when he describes a pub as ‘poky and smoky; dead-alive’ or ‘she had got herself into his system as a virus’.
One of my favorite sequences in the book comes near the start in which Ned finds himself furtively heading to a rendezvous. Blake conveys some of the tension of that moment, even while also allowing us to be aware of how his perceptions differ from the reality of the situation. It was the writing that drew me into this story and excited me to keep reading.
If you are pondering over whether I think this or Highsmith’s novel is the more essential, I would steer you to the latter first. It is an earlier and richer read in terms of its themes but I think that this does enough differently to make it an interesting read in its own right.
It certainly has left me keen to read some of the other Blake novels I have on my TBR pile (and I won’t lie – I’ve added a couple more Blakes to the library since reading this).
The Verdict: The parallels with Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train are there but this work is interesting in its own right.
6 thoughts on “A Penknife in My Heart by Nicholas Blake”
As you suggest, the fact Blake’s book shares its premise with Highsmith’s accounts for its obscurity; it’s also a late work. I didn’t enjoy it as much as his other works, but, as you say, his language is always a pleasure. Which Blakes do you have in your pile?
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I have acquired copies of A Question of Proof, Thou Shell of Death, The Private Wound, Malice in Wonderland and The Deadly Joker. I previously read and enjoyed The Beast Must Die.
Proof and Shell are excellent. Shell is rather like a Michael Innes novel, with its country house and literary references.
Private Wound is late and semi-autobiographical. Not his best puzzle plot, by any means, but powerfully characterised.
Malice and Private Joker are minor but entertaining.
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Thanks Nick. I am glad to read that I have several excellent ones (and no outright duds) to look forward to!
Taken several goes today but I have finally got my internet to play ball and upload this post.
I’ve read all the Nigel Strangeways novels but not any of Blake’s non-series stuff. I think it is because his style shifts a lot in the second half of his writing career, moving away from the puzzle focus, and I don’t think I like it as much.
The first 5/6 titles by Blake are his strongest in my opinion. They’re certainly his most innovative ones. I find the titles after that weaker efforts.
I would definitely avoid The Morning After Death, the last Nigel book. Nigel is very creepy/pervy in that one. I spent the entire book muttering to myself that he would never have done that if Georgina was around.
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Thanks for the warning! That one isn’t in my pile yet and I will certainly avoid it in the time being.