There’s Trouble Brewing by Nicholas Blake

Book Details

Originally published in 1937

Nigel Strangeways #3
Preceded by Thou Shell of Death
Followed by The Beast Must Die

The Blurb

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.

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.

My Thoughts

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.

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.

The Beast Must Die by Nicholas Blake

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

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.