Friday, September 6, 2013

Todd Downing on Nicholas Blake (and Nigel Strangeways)

Todd Downing (1902-1974)
the Choctaw Nation's contribution
to Golden Age detective fiction writing
--he also reviewed the stuff
Todd Downing reviewed Nicholas Blake's debut detective novel, A Question of Proof, in August 1935, a few months before Blake reviewed (and raved) Downing's Vultures in the Sky (see the Blake post below).  Like a commenter on this blog, he found Blake's detective, Nigel Strangeways, grating, but he liked Blake's writing very  much otherwise and recommended the tale:

....Likewise, we were tepid about the amateur sleuth, Nigel Strangeways--answered examination questions at Oxford with limericks, found the Duchess of Esk’s diamonds, likes tea and lots of bedclothes, murmurs, “Mon dieu, quel hulerberlu!" Quel, I might even say say, toho-bohu!”--although we are assured that “he is a simple soul, really.”

As frequently happens, superlatively good writing minimizes first novel defects....

Nicholas Blake/Cecil Day Lewis
prominent exponent of
classical amateur detection
The full review, along with nearly three hundred more, is found in my book Clues and Corspes: The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing. Todd Downing and Nicholas Blake were nearly exact contemporaries, Downing having been born two years before Blake and dying two years after him.

Of course Nigel Strangeways was Nicholas Blake's contribution to the Golden Age facetious gentleman detective breed, so popularized by Dorothy L. Sayers, S. S. Van Dine, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh, among others. I like Blake's detective fiction, though I must concede that Raymond Chandler complained about Strangeways too (and Strangeways' brilliant explorer wife for that matter). Downing's primary series sleuth, Customs Agent Hugh Rennert, isn't tough like Chandler's private eye Marlowe, but he is more down-to-earth than them toffs!


  1. I agree with you that the Nigel Strangeways of A Question Of Proof is squarely in the Silly Ass tradition of the Golden Age. He did, however, lose his intrepid explorer wife Georgia in the Blitz, and replaced her with the much more interesting Clare Massinger, iconoclastic sculptor -- and I think this is the point at which Blake hit his stride with the character (1947 was his first mystery since 1941 and I think he had a lot of pent-up plots and characters!). A Question of Proof is clever and entertaining, but Minute for Murder and Head of a Traveller are both those things and intellectually deep.

    Was it Julian Symons who said that he had read the first page of a Nicholas Blake novel, noted the name of T. S. Eliot and realized that he was in for a much more elevated experience, or words to that effect? My memory is uncertain and I don't have a copy of Bloody Murder at hand. I'm sure you or another regular reader will be able to set me straight.

  2. Noah, yes, I agree with what you write about Blake. There's definitely a difference between Head of a Traveler, say, and A Question of Proof. The latter has some clever things in it and is a good portrayal of a boys school, but I can see why some find Strangeways trying in that one (others love him though). Chandler thought he ruined The Beast Must Die. I don't know if I'd go that far, but probably that one would have been better without him.

    Yes, that was Symons, about the second Blake book, Thou Shell of Death, I believe.

  3. Many of Strangeways' characteristics were borrowed from Day Lewis's friend W.H. Auden. Others- most notably- most notably homosexuality- could not be transferred.
    Strangeways developed as a character and ceased to be a bundle of "interesting" traits over time. All the same, he isn't quite a human character as compared with others in the books- in The Beast Must Die he transforms the book while he is there, and for the worse. In the Nicholas Blake Omnibus neither of the other stories- A Penknife in My Heart and A Tangled Web- feature Strangeways and both are crime stories rather than detective stories.

    1. Blake himself had gotten rather bored with classical detection by the 1950s. I quote some interesting comments from him in my Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery. He said unless you're Agatha Christie, you get bored with that kind of thing eventually! I don't myself, but then I just read it, I don't write it.

      I do like his Strangeways publishing mystery from the fifties, End of Chapter, quite a lot. It obviously inspired P. D. James' Original Sin, I think.

      Another thing about Downing, he tended not to like schoolchildren mysteries. There was something of a wave then.