Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Speaking of Agatha...Nicholas Blake Reviews Some Crime Fiction

No doubt being the mystery fanciers that you are, you've all heard the news by now that crime writer Sophie Hannah will be publishing an authorized Hercule Poirot mystery next year.

I view this with some trepidation, but will hope for the best.  Expect to see a review from me coming soon of a Sophie Hannah novel!

Hannah, who like The Passing Tramp and I'm sure many others who read this blog, read Agatha Christie voraciously as a youngster, regards the Queen of Crime as "the greatest crime writer of all time"--putting her at odds, I suspect, with many of her fellow crime writers (including her second favorite crime writer, Ruth Rendell), who take a more condescending view.

I had been planning to post this piece anyway, oddly enough, but it may have special interest now.

It's drawn from a review article that crime writer Nicholas Blake (poet C. Day Lewis, who also wrote the well-regarded Nigel Strangeways mysteries) did back in 1936 in the Spectator.  He reviewed seven novels:

The ABC Murders, by Agatha Christie
Murder Isn't Easy, by Richard Hull
Scandal at School, by G. D. H. and Margaret Cole
A Word of Six Letters, by Herbert Adams
Who Killed Gatton?, by E. Charles Vivian
Vultures in the Sky, by Todd Downing
The Nursing Home Murder, by Ngaio Marsh

Here are some choice bits from Mr. Blake:

On The ABC Murders: "The characters, particularly that of the murderer, are rather too perfunctorily sketched.  Apart from this, one can have nothing but praise for The ABC Murders, which is really a little masterpiece of construction."

one of the great plots

On Murder Isn't Easy: "Mr. Hull, on the other hand, as we realised in his first book, The Murder of My Aunt, has great gift for character; and here again he gives it full scope by recording events in the first person....holds the interest throughout....

a few years later Christie countered that, actually, Murder Is Easy

On Scandal at School (The Sleeping Death in the United States): "The Coles have paid much more attention to character than in some of their earlier books.  The dialogue is consistently lifelike, the setting, too, is well done....Less convincing is the character of the victim....This weakens the motive....The plot, also, rather resembles a clockwork mouse: erratic in direction, and requiring too frequent winding-up."

leftist intellectuals like the Coles (and C. Day Lewis for that matter)
read and wrote detective fiction too

On A Word of Six Letters: "Must be criticised on the following counts: (1) Supineness of police (2) Padding: there is too much superfluous eating and drinking; this is only permissible when the author (cf. Mr. H. C. Bailey passim), and therefore the reader, gets a kick out of it (3) Title: crosswords play a very subordinate part in the plot (4) Archness: e.g., "Ramp it was.  There can be some merry doings in searching pretty girls for an elusive slipper."

over his long life Herbert Adams (1874-1958) published numerous mysteries and thrillers

On Who Killed Gatton?: "We turn from the arch to the heroic-on-stilts style....The book also contains a great deal of cap-lifting whenever England, the dead, &c, are mentioned, a magnificent 1890 vintage proposal-of-marriage scene, and a ditto never-set-foot-in-my-house-again one.  Those who, like myself, revel in this sort of thing will be rewarded as well by an exciting and cleverly worked-out tale."

On Vultures in the Sky: "I have not read The Cat Screams, but if it is as good as Mr. Downing's new book it is very good indeed.  He has that command of tempo without which a detection writer can never rise into the first class.  He avoids the American tendency to overwrite the trivial, yet he can write up to the dramatic situation when it comes.  He has the sotto-voce, ungesticulating way of leading one up to the edge of a precipice which makes a walk with Dr. M. R. James so deliciously uncomfortable.......This book puts him into the Van Dine--Ellery Queen class: I do not expect to read a better detective novel for a long time."

the third of Todd Downing's Hugh Rennert detective novels

On The Nursing Home Murder: "sound motives....a charming detective, local colour obviously put on by a professional hand, a pretty wit, and a perfectly reasonable solution...unreservedly recommended...."

While Blake certainly paid Christie and Marsh their dues, he seems to indicate his favorite of the lot (and his favorite for some time) was Todd Downing's Vultures in the Sky.  As old hands here will know, I have taken some interest in Downing, publishing the book Clues and Corpses on his life, crime fiction and crime fiction reviews.  Vultures in the Sky also is available in a very nice edition from Coachwhip.

I happen to have read six of the seven books reviewed by Blake and I would rank them as follows, in terms of personal favorites (please note that I recognize the brilliance of the plot of The ABC Murders, but it is not a book I as much enjoy rereading as Vultures, after knowing the twist):

1. Vultures in the Sky
2. The ABC Murders
3. Murder Isn't Easy
4. The Nursing Home Murder
5. Scandal at School
6. A Word of Six Letters

As for the E. Charles Vivian novel, I have no idea who killed Gatton!


  1. A few days ago I gave up on Sophie Hannah's 'The Point of Rescue' after about thirty pages, in which not very much, and absolutely nothing of significance to the plot, happened. Just too slow moving and "Aga saga-ish" for my tastes.

    1. I ordered three books by her, so I will certainly get to see what I think! You make her stuff sound like, if Christie, more like By the Pricking of My Thumbs/Postern of Fate Christie!

  2. The most surprising thing to me reading that is that Alleyn is 'charming'. Not that there's anything really wrong with him, except for Marsh's own excessive enthusiasm for him (with random side characters regularly expressing their appreciation of his looks and other qualities). But then I find Nigel Strangeways a little grating sometimes (particularly at the point in "The Beast Must Die" where we shift from first person to third person narrative).

    1. Todd Downing found Strangeways grating too (see my comment below). I do have to admit to getting a little tired of "Handsome Alleyn" myself.

  3. That made fascinating reading. Blake/Day Lewis was an interesting character.

    1. He definitively was. And without him we wouldn't have had Daniel Day Lewis!

  4. Sophie Hannah is a smart and articulate woman. I heard her speak at a Bouchercon panel a few years ago. But like Keen Reader I couldn't read the one book of hers that was part of my Bouchercon goodie bag. Reminded me of Minette Walters in her boring period. We shall see how Hannah pulls off her take on Poirot. Perhaps she will surprise us all.

    As for E. Charles Vivian I like the supernatural thrillers he wrote as "Jack Mann" but Seventeen Cards, the only detective novel of his I read, was pretty much uninteresting and plodding.

    1. Like you, I've read Seventeen Cards and, like you, found it unmemorable. But Blake liked Gatton, even the melodramatic style.

  5. "I find Nigel Strangeways a little grating sometimes (particularly at the point in "The Beast Must Die" where we shift from first person to third person narrative)."

    Day Lewis/Blake himself agreed: when he selected novels for a "Nicholas Blake anthology" "The Beast Must Die" was the only book with Strangeways in it, and he plays a very minor part there.


    1. Todd Downing, author of Vultures in the Sky, much praised above, felt the same way about Strangeways! He also reviewed mysteries, and in 1935 reviewed Blake's debut novel, A Question of Proof.

  6. You've unearthed some great stuff there Curt, bravo (as we say back home ...) - not too impressed about the idea of more Poirot novels really - there is a kind of rationale for finishing off incomplete ones like the Sayers by Paton Walsh, Block's imtervention in the final Woolrich or even Parker's massive additional work on POODLE SPRINGS from Chandler but a one just seems so ... unnecessary?