There’s Trouble Brewing by Nicholas Blake

Originally published in 1937
Nigel Strangeways #3
Preceded by Thou Shell of Death
Followed by The Beast Must Die

Private detective and poet Nigel Strangeways has been invited to address the Maiden Astbury literary society in the sleepy and serene Dorset town.

But all is not as peaceful as it seems. Local brewer, Eustace Bunnet, is on the war path after his beloved dog is found dead in one of the Bunnett’s Brewery vats. This grisly crime casts an air of suspicion over the whole town, but no culprit is found.

When a body is discovered in the very same vat, gruesomely boiled down to its bones, Nigel Strangeways is called in to capture the killer and solve this very peculiar mystery in a town more perturbing than picturesque.

As I have previously confessed on this blog, beer does not constitute a particularly big part of my diet these days. Were I a bigger drinker however I might find myself losing that taste after reading this book which contains what may be the most nauseating circumstances to find a body that I can ever recall reading in a crime novel. And yet, I am about to describe it so the sensitive of stomach (or for that matter, dog lovers) may wish to skip over this one.

You have been warned!

Nigel Strangeways has arrived in Maiden Astbury to address a meeting of the town’s literary society on the subject of modern poetry. During a drink before the meeting, one of the gathering jokingly asks if they are drinking Truffles in their beer. It turns out that some weeks earlier the remains of a dog belonging to Eustace Bunnet, the local brewer, was found dead inside one of his brewing vats.

Following Nigel’s speech, Bunnet approaches him ask to hire him to investigate the matter for him. He insists that his dog must have been murdered because it was too old and lacking in agility to find its way into the vat by itself. Nigel is not keen on the job but quotes an exorbitant fee which the parsimonious brewer surprisingly, if grudgingly, agrees to pay.

Bunnet arranges to meet with Nigel in his brewery the next day so it is surprising when he does not show up. One of Bunnet’s staff offers to show him the vat where the dog had been found but when they open it the find another body, this time a human one, that has been boiled down to its bones. There is no possibility that it could be suicide. It seems that Nigel has lost a client and gained another murder case.

In spite of how queasy it makes me to think over those opening chapters again, I think this makes for a wonderfully striking introduction to the novel. Blake’s prose is wonderfully witty and sharp, particularly in the scenes concerning the literary society which can be quite hilarious. For one thing, I can attest to how nothing draws a crowd for a literary gathering than the offer of free food…

While having the first victim be an animal may be upsetting, it does provide Strangeways with a reason to be on the scene, enabling him to get involved in the more traditional human murder case that follows. The discovery of that body, which comes early, raises a series of questions – not least about the relationship between these two bodies in the vat. To summarize some of them:

  • Was the dog murdered?
  • Is the murderer the same person responsible for the death of the dog?
  • If so, was it a trial run for the human murder that followed?
  • If not, did it inspire the murder or was it just coincidence?

I found these questions to be quite intriguing and looked forward to learning what the answers would be. Nigel’s investigation seems to go pretty smoothly and introduces us to a set of interesting characters setting up several suspects to consider. Yet for all of the appeal of this setup, I struggled to keep my interest for a very simple and very silly reason: one part of the solution struck me as far, far too obvious.

Now clearly I am not going to give away the game (at least, not deliberately). For one thing, I would love it if you disagree with me and find that the aspect of the plot I am referring to really works for you. The problem is that this book is structured in such a way as to make the moment where that information is shared feel powerful and yet if you see the clue coming, the mystery then becomes much, much simpler to solve.

Things are not helped either by heavy usage of the trope where our sleuth compiles pages of notes on each possible killer. This results in some pages of pretty dense text that mostly just reiterates aspects of the story we have already learned, seeming to only slow down the story.

Things do pick up a little towards the end but here, once again, I felt a little deflated. I wanted some moment of surprise and yet I found that I had simply predicted each of the planned surprises. The result was a book that while often quite witty and boasting an interesting starting point, sadly underwhelmed me, particularly in regards to the solution to its central detective story. Still, in spite of that Blake’s sharp and witty writing style makes this easy and entertaining to read.

While this book may have put me off my lunch and may make me eye my next few pints with a little suspicion, I am confident I will return to Blake again soon.

The Verdict: Boasts a promising, if grotesque, premise. Sadly I figured out what had happened far too quickly, leaving me feeling a little underwhelmed and disappointed.

Second Opinions

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime liked this one slightly more than I did, though I would agree that this would have been improved with a slightly shorter page count.

Moira @ ClothesInBooks has actually written about this twice. The praise is muted with a note that some aspects are of their time and that the tone can be rather snobbish.

Nick @ The Grandest Game in the World shares a mixture of contemporary reviews and their own opinion. They enjoyed the detection process in this one more than I did but they do point out the subsequent murders add interest which I do agree with.

A Penknife in My Heart by Nicholas Blake

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.

The Beast Must Die by Nicholas Blake

Originally Published 1938
Nigel Strangeways #4
Preceded by There’s Trouble Brewing
Followed by The Smiler with the Knife

What do you do when you plan a murder then, inexplicably, your victim turns up dead, and not by your hand?

Respected crime writer Frank Cairns is plotting the perfect murder of George Rattery, the hit-and-run driver who killed his young son, but when his intended victim is found dead and Cairns becomes the prime suspect, the author insists he has been framed.

Pleading his innocence, an old friend calls in private detective Nigel Strangeways to help prove that Cairns has been framed. Strangeways must unravel a fiendishly plotted mystery if he is to discover what really happened to George Rattery.

I should probably start out this review with a bit of an apology. What you are about to read will likely be a little more disjointed than my usual sort of review. I have spent the best part of two days working on this one but I am not truly satisfied with my efforts.

Part of the reason that I have found this novel so hard to write about is that it is difficult to avoid spoiling the novel’s twists. The Beast Must Die doesn’t even really become a Nigel Strangeways mystery until just before the halfway point so even discussing his role and purpose in the book risks taking me heavily into spoiler territory.

Having tried this multiple ways now I find I am incapable of discussing the book without at least giving away the nature of that first twist. If you want to come to this completely unspoiled here is my potted review: The Beast Must Die is an entertaining and interesting novel. I found the scenario quite compelling and felt Blake’s portrayal of Cairnes’ grief at the loss of his son to be credible and powerful. You don’t need to have read any of the previous Strangeways novels – this stands on its own – and I think it deserves its place on the CWA’s Top 100 list.

Mild spoilers follow (though nothing more than in many of the book’s blurbs). You have been warned!

In its earliest chapters The Beast Must Die appears to be an inverted mystery novel. I say appears to be because this novel can be classified as a pseudo-inverted story. What I mean by this is that Blake adopts many of the common elements, themes and stylistic choices of the form but when a murder does take place it is not done in the way we were anticipating and the would-be killer swears his innocence.

That would-be killer is Frank Cairnes, a successful mystery novelist whose life was destroyed when his young son is killed in a hit and run. Devastated at his loss, Cairnes vows he will discover who was responsible and kill them himself. In these early chapters which are styled as part of a diary he is keeping we follow his efforts to track down information and find the guilty party.

He comes to believe that the man responsible was George Rattery and sets about trying to get close enough to him to find evidence supporting his suspicions before he acts. In doing so he comes into close contact with members of Rattery’s family including Rattery’s own son Phil. Eventually he becomes certain that George was responsible and the diary portion of the novel concludes with a description of his plan to eliminate him.

At this point in the novel Blake switches perspective, moving from that first person diary-style account to third person narration. This switch is necessary because from this point in the story onwards we are no longer reading an inverted mystery but a more conventional form of detective novel in which we will be hunting for a killer. Basic facts of the crime need to be clearly established.

The second phase of the novel picks up at the point at which Cairnes attempts to implement his murder scheme and things unravel around him. Before long Rattery is found dead by a completely different method but Cairnes is aware that he will soon come under suspicion. He reaches out to Nigel Strangeways to ask for his help in handling this situation and in the hope that he might prove his innocence.

A little while ago I encountered another mystery novel that adopted a similar structure – George Limnelius’ The Medbury Fort Murder. In that instance I felt that the transition between the two styles was awkward and counterproductive while the time spent on the inverted section of the story seemed to lead nowhere.

Blake’s treatment of the same basic idea is far more successful here and I think it comes down to two reasons. The first is that the two phases of the novel each feel more clearly defined, providing a more natural transition between the two styles. The other reason that it works is that the discovery that Cairnes’ plot failed does not render the events of those early chapters redundant. Cairnes’ actions expose him to police scrutiny, causing him to contact Strangeways for assistance, while these chapters also pack a truly powerful punch on an emotional level.

These chapters are also interesting in that they present us with a situation that is fairly unusual for an inverted tale in having Cairnes become close to his victim’s family and friends. This sometimes presents complications such as when he wonders about the extent to which he is using another character and in others it helps stiffen his resolve. This not only adds to the interest in these early chapters, it also presents some interesting complications later in the story when Cairnes’ identity becomes known.

The detective phase of the novel is also handled extremely well and here, once again, Blake’s careful development of the novel’s structure pays off. Nigel’s introduction into the story is handled smoothly and feels at least reasonably credible. Because he already knows Cairnes and we have already become familiar with the other suspects we are able to get quickly stuck into the case.

The investigation is perhaps not the most dynamic or surprising I have read. Characters’ motivations are clear from the outset and there are few really surprising moments. The interest lies in exploring characters’ psychology and relationships, both of which Blake does extremely well.

This is not my first encounter with Nigel Strangeways – I have previous read short stories in the British Library anthologies Murder at the Manor and The Long Arm of the Law – but as both stories were extremely short I had little conception of the character. I will say that he has some attributes I often find frustrating such as his being another instance of the overly literate detective, but I think that is balanced well with other elements of his character. I also appreciated his relationship with his practical wife who joins him on this trip and makes her own contributions to this case.

This brings me to the even more tricky topic of the novel’s ending and the revelation of the killer’s identity. I think Blake achieves a memorable conclusion to his novel and I appreciated how Strangeways decides to handle their unmasking. It felt that it fit the tone of the overall piece and I think it is fair.

I do however have some problems with some aspects of how the killer conducted themselves, finding one choice particularly reckless. It didn’t necessarily damage the credibility of the solution and I think it makes sense based on their characterization but it did make me wonder why anyone would take on that degree of risk.

While I question that choice on a character level, I think it was the right choice for the novel. It certainly contributes to the ending, helping to make it a memorable and powerful conclusion to what is quite a remarkable and inventive read. Highly recommended.

Other Views

This novel has unsurprisingly been reviewed and written about extensively including by Kate at CrossExaminingCrime, Margot’s Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, Past Offences, Puzzle Doctor at In Search of the Classic Mystery and Tipping My Fedora.

JJ has a review of the book planned for tomorrow at his blog The Invisible Event so be sure to check it out and see whether we agree!

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Includes letter/s or diary extracts (or similar items) (What)

Murder at the Manor edited by Martin Edwards

Originally Published 2016

The English country house is an iconic setting for some of the greatest British crime fiction. This new collection gathers together stories written over a span of about 65 years, during which British society, and life in country houses, was transformed out of all recognition. It includes fascinating and unfamiliar twists on the classic ‘closed circle’ plot, in which the assorted guests at a country house party become suspects when a crime is committed. In the more sinister tales featured here, a gloomy mansion set in lonely grounds offers an eerie backdrop for dark deeds.

Though I have been something of a skeptic when it comes to short crime fiction in the past these British Library anthologies curated by Martin Edwards have helped turn me around on the possibilities of the form. Over the past year I bought most of these collections and have been slowly working through them.

Murder at the Manor takes the iconic country house setting as its focus, presenting us with sixteen tales from authors from a variety of backgrounds and styles. In some cases however the setting plays little role in the story itself and few convey any real sense of those impressive historic homes.

The result is a collection that can feel a little uneven compared to some of the others in the range. A few stories such as The Problem of Dead Wood Hall and The Long Shot left me quite unimpressed. There are some stories though that I can strongly recommend that make this worth dipping into.

Several of the most memorable tales are inverted crime stories such as W. W. Jacobs’ The Well which features some truly horrific moments and James Hilton’s The Perfect Plan which builds to a thrilling conclusion. Those who prefer lighter mysteries are likely to enjoy E. V. Knox’s very amusing story The Murder at the Towers which is consistently amusing, parodying the country house mystery very effectively.

The highlight of the collection is an incredibly tense thriller by Ethel Lina White, An Unlocked Window. In that tale a group of nurses have locked themselves in a house while the Doctor is away fetching supplies because there is a serial killer who has been targeting nurses as his victims. The moment in which the protagonist realizes that they have left a window unlocked is really chilling but it is topped by a superb reveal that pushes the story into a thrilling conclusion. While this is not normally my type of read, I think it is done really well and it is likely to stay with me for a while.

Though I do feel that the stories in this collection are less consistent than some of the other volumes the British Library have published, stories like these certainly make this worth dipping into. I would suggest though starting with Resorting to Murder or The Long Arm of the Law, both of which I rate highly, unless the subject matter of this volume particularly appeals.

Continue reading “Murder at the Manor edited by Martin Edwards”

The Long Arm of the Law edited by Martin Edwards

The Long Arm of the Law
Martin Edwards (ed)
Originally Published 2017

I have mentioned before that I am a bit of an unbeliever when it comes to short stories. I understand and respect the craft and I know that it can actually be far harder to write a really effective short story than a novel. I just have not found many that I could get all that excited about.

The Long Arm of the Law is one of the more recent short story collections published as part of the British Library Crime Classics range. Once again Martin Edwards has curated the collection, writing a general introduction explaining the themes of the book and individual shorter introductions for each story.

I would say that on the whole this is an enjoyable read, though I think there are a number of stories here that feature policemen as a character rather than being about the police investigation. The good ones though are superb and well worth your time.

The Mystery of Chenholt by Alice and Claude Askew

A fairly straightforward story in which Inspector Vane is approached by a butler who is worried his master is secretly poisoning his wife. Expect to see the twist coming though it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

The Silence of PC Hirley by Edgar Wallace

I couldn’t get into this somewhat open-ended story about a case of blackmail that escalates into murder. The most memorable thing about the story was one character referring to his wife as being ‘very seedy’ which apparently has a secondary meaning that I was unaware of.

The Mystery of a Midsummer Night by George R. Sims

A very thinly veiled fictionalized account of the Constance Kent case that you can find out more about in Kate Summerscale’s excellent The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. This is quite a readable story but given it draws such heavy inspiration from a real case, the revelation at the end makes little impact.

The Cleverest Clue by Laurence W. Meynell

Told in the form of a barroom reminiscence, this story involves an academic who is developing an anti-aircraft defense being caught up in some intrigue. I liked the background to this and thought the resolution was good, though I think it gets a little cute with the titular clue.

The Undoing of Mr Dawes by Gerald Verner

Cute and unlike the previous story the policeman plays an important part in this one. The story involves a jewelry heist and the policeman’s efforts to see the mastermind put away for the crime. The way it is managed is quite clever and it is a pleasure to read. I’d be interested in trying more Verner so if anyone has any recommendations, please share!

The Man Who Married Too Often by Roy Vickers

Given my love of inverted mysteries it will come as no surprise at all that Roy Vickers has been on my radar for a while. I have a volume of his Department of Dead Ends mysteries that has sat near the top of my To Read list since Christmas. If this tale is anything to go by I’ll have to push them higher.

The story concerns a woman working on the stage who contrives to marry a Marchioness through a Becky Sharp-style piece of manipulation. Later she gets a couple of cruel surprises that lead her to commit murder.

The development of her case features some entertaining twists and reveals while the resolution is superb. I might, if I were nitpicking, complain that I think the police get their solution without a strong base of evidence but I was entertained by the conclusion. One of the gems of this collection!

The Case of Jacob Heylyn by Leonard R. Gribble

The most noteworthy thing about this story for me was that one of its characters happens to rubbish a key element of the previous story. I was curious whether its respective placement was coincidence or intentional.

The mystery certainly isn’t bad but it lacks the distinctive characters or lively plotting of some of the other stories in this collection.

Fingerprints by Freeman Wills Crofts

Hooray! Just when I thought that I had exhausted all of Crofts’ inverted tales I stumble on this gem. It is an incredibly short tale that gives use the basic details of what leads Jim Crouch to give himself away when he murders his uncle. Inspector French turns up and in just a few paragraphs he is able to point out why this is not the suicide it appears to be. Clever and entertaining.

Remember to Ring Twice (1950) E. C. R. Lorac

One of the shorter tales in the collection, this concerns a policeman overhearing a conversation at the bar and then shortly afterwards being called to a crime scene that is linked to one of the participants in that conversation. I can’t say this gripped me but the mechanics of how the crime is committed and its inspiration are interesting enough.

Cotton Wool and Cutlets by Henry Wade

I have been on a bit of a Henry Wade kick lately and I must confess to having been drawn to read this by the inclusion of one of his short stories. Unsurprisingly I found this to be one of the stronger crime tales in the collection, both in terms of the depiction of the police and also in the case itself.

With regards the former, one of the things I think this gets right is it shows you some of the ego and competition involved in any workplace. In terms of the latter, the premise of the faked suicide is handled exceptionally well and is undone through some simple evidence. It is interesting to discover how the crime was worked and the motivation behind it.

After the Event by Christianna Brand

{Whoops – my comments on this story were missed when I first posted this review. Thanks to Kate for indirectly prompting me to realize this!}

This story made me realize how I hope that at some point there may be a theatrical mysteries collection. This story is recounted by the Great Detective many years after it took place and involves a strangling taking place after a performance of Othello.

It all hinges on a rather simple idea but it is brilliantly executed and I was caught completely by surprise. One of the highlights of the collection.

Sometimes the Blind by Nicholas Blake

This is one of the shortest stories in the collection but it packs a lot into just a few pages. The tale is recounted by a policeman who is using it to illustrate how there are many cases where the police know who was responsible for a crime but cannot prove it sufficiently for the criminal to ever be charged with it. The story explores the motivations of the killer convincingly and I thought the ending was superb.

And now I’m kicking myself for having yet to get around to reading any of the Blake novels I have on my Kindle…

The Chief Witness by John Creasey

A superb story that packs an emotional wallop and manages to pack a neat revelation in that genuinely caught me by surprise. The story concerns the death of Evelyn Pirro who is found strangled in her bed. The immediate assumption is that her husband, whom she had started arguing violently with, was responsible though no one can understand what caused a seemingly devoted and loving couple to turn on each other.

The story is exceptionally written and Creasey manages to create three dimensional characters in just a handful of pages. The use of the child is particularly effective, the character being written as innocent but still able to provide some important information.

Old Mr Martin by Michael Gilbert

A bit of an odd one, though I found it to be quite entertaining. The owner of a sweet shop is killed by a car in what seems to be a hit and run accident. The Police are called to look at his basement where they find something that shouldn’t be there and hints at a crime.

The story was highly unpredictable and handled very well. The ending is not unexpected but I think executed very effectively.

The Moorlanders by Gil North

I found the action in this story impossible to follow which surprised me as I had little problem following the Cluff novel I tried recently. It’s not a dialect thing or a lack of familiarity with the characters that’s to blame – it just doesn’t communicate its ideas. To illustrate: I had to reread the story to pick up that there had been a motorbike accident. Unfortunately it ends the collection on a somewhat disappointing note.