The Beast Must Die by Nicholas Blake

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

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

Manor
Murder at the Manor
Martin Edwards (ed)
Originally Published 2016

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

LongArm
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.