Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Thou Shell of Death: Nicholas Blake

Towards the end of each year, I try to include a few Christmas mysteries in my reading. Often, Christmas and the associated events are an excuse to gather people who normally would not be together, and that is the case in Thou Shell of Death.

Summary from the back of my paperback edition:
Nigel Strangeways is off to a Christmas houseparty hosted by Fergus O’Brien, a legendary World War I flying ace now retired ... who has received a series of mocking letters predicting that he will be murdered on Boxing Day.  
His guest list includes everyone who could even remotely be suspected of making the threats, including several people who stand to profit from O’Brien’s death, as well as Nigel, who is invited in his capacity as a criminal investigator. 
Despite Nigel’s presence, the murder takes place as predicted, and he’s left to aid the local police in interviewing the suspects. One of them is Georgia Cavendish, a brave and colorful explorer who has been romantically linked with O’Brien ...
I have always enjoyed country house mysteries, and three of the Christmas mysteries I read this year fit in that sub-genre. One attraction of that type of story is the mix of classes, and the interactions of well-to-do owners and guests, the investigators and police, and the servants of the house.


I am a big fan of the Nigel Strangeways mysteries by Nicholas Blake. I read a good number of them when I was younger, and on reading three of them in the last few months, I have found that they still entertain me. They are very well written and full of literary allusions (most of which I don't get). They are puzzle mysteries, at least the first ones in the series.

Although it is only a minor quibble, I have the same complaint for this book as I did for Minute for Murder (1947). There is too much conversation at the end about the reveal of the culprit. Once the sleuth knows who it is, I don't want the denouement to be strung out.

This is the second mystery in the series. In the first one, A Question of Proof, Nigel has several odd quirks. The one I noticed the most was that he drank a lot of tea, almost seeming addicted to his cups of tea. In this story he seem less quirky.

Blake wrote 16 mysteries in this series over 31 years (1935-1966). From what I have read the earlier books were the more formal classic mysteries of the Golden Age and his post-war books were more character driven works. I look forward to reading through them in order and following this evolution in his writing.

Nicholas Blake is a pseudonym used by Cecil Day-Lewis, who was an Anglo-Irish poet and the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1968 until his death in 1972. He was the father of actor Daniel Day-Lewis. Per various sources, he wrote mysteries to supplement his income and support his family.

This post is submitted for Friday's Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott’s blog. Check out posts for other forgotten books HERE and this week there are some "Best of 2016" lists also. Also this is my last entry for the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt in the "Bloodstains" category.


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Publisher:  Rue Morgue Press, 2009 (orig. pub. 1936)
Length:     191 pages
Format:     Trade Paperback
Series:      Nigel Strangeways #2
Setting:     England
Genre:      Country house mystery
Source:     Purchased in April 2016.

17 comments:

  1. I've been trying to get hold of a Nicholas Blake novel for Crimes of the Century but they are always stupidly expensive to get posted to Oz. What I need is for some Australian mystery fan with a huge library to suddenly move to a tiny house and sell their entire collection on eBay.

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    1. I wish you luck in finally finding a copy of one of his mysteries, Bernadette. This one is good, and Minute for Murder is good, but I don't recommend the first in the series, A Question of Proof. It isn't really bad but it would not convince me to read more of his books.

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  2. Also a big fan. I need to reread one or two. It's been forty years.

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    1. I don't think I read the later books in this series, Patti, but they all seem new to me. I cannot remember books I read even twenty years ago.

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  3. These are great mysteries, Tracy. Thanks for the reminder of them. And I think this one is one of his best ones.

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    1. This one is definitely good, Margot. I am not sure I ever read The Beast Must Die either, but it is the 4th one so I will get there soon.

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  4. I keep meaning to begin this series, and after reading this I went over to amazon and found a used copy of A Question of Proof. Thanks for the nudge to get going! Even if it isn't great, I like to begin at the beginning. ;<)

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    1. I am the same way, Nan, I like to start at the beginning. I like to at least get the set up for the character and his background before reading later ones. Although I read that the first ones in the series are each very different. We shall see.

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  5. I read this one too this year! My blogpost I think will go up tomorrow. I liked it somewhat more than you did.

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    1. I look forward to your post, Moira. I think my problem with Blake's novels, in the three I have read recently, is that I am not thrilled with the endings. And the end of a book is what I focus on or remember (usually). But in general I am fond of the series and each is a bit different, which I like.

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  6. I read this, in fact, I own the book or did at one time. But darn if I can remember anything about it, Tracy. (Except that I never read another Nigel Strangeways so maybe I didn't like it.) Hmmm. Time for a reread, I think. I haven't read any other books by Nicholas Blake aka Cecil Day-Lewis, I think. (Daniel Day-Lewis' poet father.) They're not that easy to find.

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    1. I agree that Nicholas Blake books are not easy to find, Yvette. I bought the first two in the series in Rue Morgue editions, because they have great background about the author. (Unfortunately they are no longer in business.) I have one more that I found at the book sale but will have to start looking online I guess.

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  7. Not my cup of tea, I'm afraid, pip pip. Your mention of the unsatisfactory ending reminds me of Geoffrey Homes's The Man Who Didn't Exist, which I bought after reading an FFB review (maybe yours?). Loved the characterizations but found the ending a huge letdown. No surprise, and way too much yakkity yak by the narrator. Happy New Year, Tracy!

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    1. I don't see this as being your type of reading, Mathew, although you would surely do better with the literary allusions that I do.

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    2. Difference being, I tend to fake it, while you know your stuff. ;)

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  8. Tracy, I hope to read Nicholas Blake ever since I read one of his poems at Moira's blog. I'm just not sure where to start.

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    1. Good question, Prashant. I don't know if it makes much difference where you start. I read his 8th Nigel Strangeways mystery first, then the first two in the series. But I had read some of them years ago too.

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