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.