The Crimes of the Century meme is hosted by Rich at Past Offences. Every month he designates a year and bloggers contribute a post on a crime fiction book (or film, TV, comics, or short story) published in that year. There is still time to join in for March.
The book opens shortly after V-E Day. Nigel Strangeways works in the Visual Propaganda Division in the Ministry of Morale. A war-hero (and former member of the division) returns to visit the group, and the director's personal secretary is poisoned at the office gathering to celebrate his return. Nicholas Blake is the pseudonym of Cecil Day Lewis, who worked as a Publications Editor for the Ministry of Information during World War II, and used his experiences in writing this book.
In this excerpt from the book, Nigel ruminates on his former co-worker, the "improbable hero, Charles Kennington."
It was pleasant to reflect how many of his sort this war had thrown up. The long-haired, sensitive types, who had voted at the Oxford Union that under no circumstances would they die for king and country, and a few years later had gone up into the air with the professionals of the R.A.F. and helped win the Battle of Britain, fighting with the same skill and abandon as once they had speechified. The conscientious objectors, who refused to kill but performed prodigies of valor during the blitzes as members of rescue squads and fire brigades. The clever little dons, who vanished one day from their universities and were next heard of having dropped by parachute into occupied territory, organizing the resistance, dynamiting bridges, standing up to a firing party in a squalid backyard. The anonymous-looking scientists, who walked up to unexploded bombs and coldly took them to pieces, as though they were demonstrating an experiment in a laboratory, and generally were not blown to bits. ...I have read some of Nicholas Blake's mysteries in the distant past but I wasn't sure I wanted to read more of them, with the exception of The Beast Must Die, which has a very good reputation. After reading this book, I know I want to find more of his books. Primarily, I liked the author's style of writing, although I have a few quibbles with this book.
Quibble 1: There is too much conversation at the end about the reveal of the culprit. Once the detective (in this case, the amateur detective) knows who it is, I don't want the denouement to be strung out.
Quibble 2: The portrayal of women. Not many women have roles in this book, and those that are there are not especially complimentary. There are plenty of secretaries and assistants mentioned towards the beginning but they fade away when the real detection gets underway. Maybe it makes sense in this context, but still, I noticed the absence.
Thus not a perfect book, but entertaining and a good depiction of the time period. I must be a sucker for mysteries set in the office environment because I also liked With A Bare Bodkin by Cyril Hare (set in another fictitious wartime Government office) and Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy Sayers (set in a publicity firm).
Some quotes from a review at PaperBack Swap:
He captures the tensions among different grades of staff and the problems of supervising talented but temperamental people.
The material on the human factor and red herring combine to make this rather longer than the typical old-time whodunnit, but he’s such a charming writer that we don’t mind.
Publisher: Perennial Library, 1985. Orig. pub. 1947.
Length: 261 pages
Series: Nigel Strangeways, #8
Setting: Wartime Britain
Source: Purchased at the Planned Parenthood book sale, 2010.