Golden Age Detective Fiction: Nicholas Blake’s “The Beast Must Die” & Dorothy Sayers’ “Have His Carcase”

It’s summer!  Have you got your lawn chairs out?  Is your umbrella positioned to shade your table?  Do you plan to spend the next few months anointed with bug spray so you can sit outside whenever the mood takes you?

All right, I’m reading nothing but genre fiction for three months!  Well, three days, okay?  And today I’m writing a  straightahead post on two superb Golden Age Detective novels, Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die and Dorothy Sayers’ Have His Carcase. 

Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die.  The poet Cecil Day-Lewis, whose excellent translations of Virgil still reside on our bookshelf, wrote 19 mysteries under the nom de plume Nicholas Blake.   I am a fan of Blake’s witty amateur sleuth /poet, Nigel Strangeways, who can hold his own with Dorothy Sayers’ brilliant Lord Peter Wimsey and Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn.  Lo and behold! I recently discovered an e-book edition of  Blake’s  1938 novel, The Beast Must Die (Ipso Books).  It was new to me, but according to The Telegraph it is one of his most famous books.

The Beast Must Die is structurally tricky, like walking through a house of mirrors.   The  first part takes the form of a journal written by Frank Cairnes, a writer of popular mysteries under the pseudonym Felix Lane.

It begins:

I am going to kill a man. I don’t know his name, I don’t know where he lives, I have no idea what he looks like. But I am going to find him and kill him.

C. Day-Lewis

Why is Frank murderous?  No, it’s not research for a new novel.  His son was killed in a hit-and-run accident, and when the police fail to find the killer, Frank utilizes the skills of his fictional sleuths to figure  out the trajectory of the car when it left the scene.  And he  discovers that someone saw  a movie starlet, Lena Lawson, in the front seat with the driver.

And then the plot gets much, much more convoluted.  He tracks down Lena and woos her to get information, but uses his nom de plume, Felix, so she will not realize he is the father of the victim.  And when he learns the driver is Lena’s brother-in-law and former lover, George Rattery, a garage owner, he wangles an invitation for a weekend visit to the Ratterys.  George is a bully, whose wife and son are nervous wrecks. He is odious, which makes the murder plot more viable from the point of view of a man with a conscience.

Nigel, the poet-sleuth, finally appears almost halfway through the novel, and it is as if there is a modernist confrontation between the consciousness of C. Day-Lewis and his other self, the mystery writer, Nicholas Blake.  Exhausted and ill from solving a different crime, Nigel  tells his wife, Georgia, an explorer, that he is “having a tête-à-tête with my unconscious” and composing ” a general knowledge paper.”  When Georgia reads the questions, she tells him it must be a terrible thing to have a classical education.  He agrees.  Among the nonsensical but learned questions are:

  1. How many fine words does it take to butter no parsnips?
  2. Who or what was “the dry wet-nurse of lions”?
  3. In what sense were the Nine Worthies?
  4. What do you know about Mr Bangelstein? What do you not know about Bion and Borysthenite?

Lovely to read, even if you haven’t the faintest idea what he’s on about.  And the questions to Frank/Felix are even more acute.

But is the journal fiction? Who done it?

If you liked Agatha Christie’s The  Murder of Roger Ackroyd, you will undoubtedly enjoy The Beast Must Die.  

Dorothy Sayers’ Have His Carcase.  Perhaps Have His Carcase is the best of Sayers’ four Harriet Vane books, or perhaps it only seems that way because I have read her most famous one, Gaudy Night, a million times!

Sayers, a Dante scholar, is my favorite Golden Age mystery writer.  And Lord Peter Wimsey, Sayers’ brilliant but affectedly foppish amateur sleuth, is one of the most vivid heroes of any mystery series. In Strong Poison, he cleared mystery writer Harriet Vane of murdering her loverand fell in unrequited love with her.  Although it’s difficult to know why she didn’t fall in love with Wimsey, we  see that she needs a breather after being a suspected murderess and escaping the death penalty.

In Have His Carcase, Harriet takes a solitary walking trip, happy to get away from everyone and everything.  But then she discovers the body of a murdered man on a deserted beach, and though she takes pictures, the tide has washed him away by the time she reaches a phone and calls the police.  Peter shows up, and he and Harriet, with the police, investigate the murder of  Paul Alexis, a professional ballroom dancer at a hotel,  amidst a whirl of other professional dancers  (it’s almost like Dancing with the Stars), itinerant barbers with sharp knives, and ostensible Russian spies. But how do you investigate a crime when there isn’t a body?

It takes time.

How to Relax on Saturday Night: Margery Allingham’s The White Cottage Mystery

allingham TheWhiteCottageMystery

There are “do’s” and “don’t’s” for Saturday night.

Do: Listen to the Grateful Dead.  What can be mellower than “Box of Rain?”

Don’t:  Watch the original Star Trek.  Popular with SF geeks, Trekkies who dress up like Klingons, and recovering addicts in rehab, it is almost too exciting “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

Do:  Read a Golden Age Detective mystery of the 1920s, ’30s, or ’40s.  There is something soothing about a murder investigation,  especially with a discerning English detective at the helm.  The brilliant detective interviews people and finds clues, but all violence is off the page.  There are cottages, manors, London flats, fens, helpful butlers…and other elements that make it relaxing.

I recently spent a Saturday night immersed in Margery Allingham’s first detective novel, The White Cottage Mystery, published in 1927. Allingham, one of the Golden Age Detective Fiction writers of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, is best known for her wonderful Albert Campion detective series.  (Now I must reread them.)  The White Cottage Mystery was recently reissued as an e -book by Bloomsbury Reader.

NPG x2396; Margery Louise Allingham by Howard Coster

Margery Allingham

Allingham has a gift for writing natural dialogue and inventing unsolvable plots (at least I never solve them).  This entertaining, fast-paced book opens with a young man, Jerry, offering a lift to a beautiful young woman who has alighted from a bus.

“God bless you!  It’s about a half mile down this road, and I’ve such a blister on my heel!”

He drops her off at a house called White Cottage.  He stops a little way down the road to put the hood up on his convertible and smoke a cigarette. He borrows a match from a constable and they chat.  Minutes later, a screaming parlourmaid runs down the road.  There has been a murder at White Cottage.  A neighbor, Mr. Eric Crowther, has been shot and killed in the dining room.

Jerry’s father happens to be Inspector W. T. Challoner of the Yard, and it is he who investigates the murder.  It is baffling, because everyone is a suspect, and everyone denies having seen the crime.  In spite of  Jerry’s protests, W. T. insists on questioning everybody, including the girl Jerry gave a lift to, Norah.  She is the sister of Mrs. Grace Christensen, whose husband, Roger, a war veteran in a wheelchair, owns White Cottage.

Everybody has a motive.   That’s the problem.  Mr. Crowther has tortured everybody with his  knowledge of their pasts, and threatened to tell their secrets.  Everybody says he was a devil who deserved to be dead.  He visited Joan almost every day, despite her wishes to the contrary, and the sense is that he harassed her. She found the body but says she was in the garden with her daughter before the shot, but the little girl says she was at the other end of the garden.   Estah, the child’s nurse, says she wishes she had killed Crowther herself, because he was the devil.  As you can imagine, his servants didn’t like him, either:  Crowther’s valet, Clarry Gale, is an ex-convict with a special hatred of him; and Mr. Cellini, Crowther’s Italian companion, has disappeared.

Penguin-4616 Allingham White Cottage MysteryAllingham  explores the ethics of a murder investigation.  They track one of the suspects to France, and when they meet up with Joan and Norah there, W. T. says there is no choice bu tto investigate them further.  Jerry is upset:  he wants his father to leave Norah alone and asks, “What does it matter who killed him?”

‘Jerry,’ he said, ‘in our business one must never be afraid to know the truth. You want me to throw up this case –a thing I could never do for my own self-respect’s sake –because you’re afraid to face what you believe to be true. You believe Mrs Christensen fired that shot –don’t interrupt me –I repeat you believe she murdered Eric Crowther, and you’re afraid to prove it. That’s no good, my boy –a doubt is always dangerous. For her sake as well as for everyone else’s we’ve got to find out all we can….’

Jerry sighed. ‘Then you won’t give up.’

A fascinating philosophical discussion.  Who is right?  W. D. or Jerry?  There is a very weird ending, utterly unexpected.

What a stunning little book!  I absolutely loved it.

Why Simenon Is Slightly Out of My Comfort Zone

I am not a big mystery fan. I read two or three mysteries a year.

The French writer Simenon has never been one of my favorites.

Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter Wimsey and Glyn Houston as Bunter

Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter Wimsey and Glyn Houston as Bunter

Ten years ago I went through a phase of reading British Golden Age Detective Novels, the “cozy” puzzle mysteries of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s.  Dorothy Sayers, Edmund Crispin, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, and Agatha Christie are among the most famous Golden Age writers. Their upper-class detective heroes are witty and charming, they pursue baffling clues, they’re either in love with women who don’t love them back or are comfortably married, and their valets are former “batmen” from the War.

The women writers are my favorites, and perhaps it’s because they introduce a tad of romance in their novels.  Dorothy Sayers’ witty hero Lord Peter Wimsey relentlessly, through three novels, pursues the chilly (and possibly gay?) Harriet Vane, a mystery writer once accused of murder who seems positively to dislike him until she sees his effect on women academics at her former college at Oxford (Gaudy Night).  Allingham’s Albert Campion, if I recall correctly, had a great love and was rejected. Of the Golden Age heroes, Marsh’s dashing Roderick Alleyn is certainly my favorite.  Roderick smoulders for his sexy girlfriend (then wife), Agatha Troy, a painter.  As for Christie, my least favorite of the Golden Age Crime Queens, her characters are stick figures.  Christie is all about the puzzle.

Anyway, I love a good “cozy” i.e., non-violent mystery, about English detectives.

Carter of La Providence SimenonBut I have recently ventured out of my comfort zone to read Georges Simenon, the great French mystery writer.  Penguin is reissuing all of his Maigret titles, one a month.

Simenon’s books are, by my standards, police procedurals rather than cozies.  Nor have I ever been able to cozy up to Simenon’s detective, Maigret.  Simenon chooses to provide minimal background on him.

Anyway, I was delighted today to find myself completely absorbed in Simenon’s The Carter of La Providence, one of the earliest books in the series; I read it in one sitting.  But the character, Maigret, is hardly developed at all; in fact, we learn about him mainly from his reactions to the crime.

The novel begins with a description of a canal and the locks. I prefer train schedules to lockkeeping, but  gradually became interested in the characters on the barges and yachts, the carters and their horses, and Maigret.

The writing is very simple and fast, and the third-person narrative keeps us slightly distanced from Maigret.

Maigret was in a tetchy mood.  He entered the stable and from there went to the cafe or the shop any number of times.

He was seen walking as far as the stone bridge looking as though he was counting the steps or looking for something in the mud.  Grimly, dripping with water, he watched as ten vessels were raised or lowered.

People wondered what he had in mind.  The answer was: nothing.  He didn’t even try to find what might be called clues, but rather to absorb the atmosphere, to capture the essence of canal life, which was so different from the world he knew.

A woman has been strangled, and her body found in the stable of an inn by the canal.  All the clues come from Maigret’s investigation, in which he learns about the community on the canal.

The woman turns out to have been the wife of Sir Walter, a colonel and the owner of a yacht whose party consists of some glamorous, decadent people with a reputation for wife-swapping and drinking.

Did the colonel do it?  Did his friend, Marco?  Or did someone on the barge, the Providence?

There will be more corpses before the end.

It is fascinating that we know almost nothing about Maigret.  He is completely intent on the mystery, but who is he? I know from reading a few of the later books that eventually he gets married–one of the novels is about his wife–but there is nothing about that here.

Should I have started with the first book?  I never read mysteries in order.  I read what I have, or what I found at Barnes and Noble.

Julian Barnes in this week’s TLS writes that Simenon’s mysteries are literary classics, and who am I to disagree with him?

I enjoyed David Coward’s translation very much but, alas, there is a relative pronoun error on the first page.   “He had gone back into his house but had not been there long when the man driving the horse-drawn boat, who he knew, walked in.”

That should be “whom he knew,” because the relative pronoun is the direct object of “knew.”

Yes, it’s petty of me, isn’t it?  But, honestly, shouldn’t the editor know the difference between who and whom?

Get it right next time, Penguin editors, please.  I’m going to read more of these.