“I am going to kill a man” — it must surely be the most famous opening line in the whole firmament of Golden Age detective fiction, and but for Sherlock Holmes and “the” woman I’d suggest the famousest opening line in all detection ever. When Aidan at Mysteries Ahoy! and I realised we were reading this near-contemporaneously, he kindly agreed to delay his review by a week that we might publish our thoughts as simultaneously as possible — I’ve not read his review as I write this, but I will by the time you’re reading it, and I am fascinated to find out how successfully he feels the game is played after that wonderful opening serve.
The intended victim is the driver whose car struck down Frank Cairnes’ 8 year-old son Martin some six month previously, and the opening section of this novel takes the form of Cairnes’ diary as he tracks down the guilty party. While a certain amount of convenience comes into play, the secret double life Cairnes leads as best-selling crime writer Felix Lane also comes in handy: not only does he get to reason this through as if it were a plot of a novel he was writing, he’s able to use the excuse of research to inveigle his way into the lives of those he eventually determines to be guilty of the crime. As a first-person look at grief and the madness a man is driven to this is both quietly brilliant — witness the cupboard of toys his housekeeper was unable to bring herself to throw away providing “a better memorial than the tombstone in the village, they will not let me sleep, they are going to be the death of someone” — and seemingly incapable of stumbling over some frankly bewildering moments:
I say to myself, “I am shortly about to become a murderer” — and it strikes on my ear as naturally and dispassionately as if I were to say “I am shortly about to become a father”.
Because, yes, ‘dispassionate’ is absolutely the word a man so overcome with grief that he’s systematically stalked his son’s killer for several months would use to describe the sensation of fatherhood. Additionally, the thread comprising repeated vandalisation of Cairnes’ flowerbeds and the receipt of some spiteful anonymous letters feels like something dropped in from Margaret Millar’s line of domestic suspense and goes precisely nowhere. Still, there’s a delightfully inverted thinking in some of this opening — “Can I succeed where the whole police organisation has failed?” he despairs at one point, making Cairnes about as anti-Crofts as it’s possible to be — and the categorisation of Sardines as a “singularly erotic game” gives one plenty to think about.
At about a third of the way through, this epistolary narrative is abandoned for a general third-person sweep, the halfway stage gives us the body, and then Nigel Strangeways swoops in to investigate. While Blake’s narrative talents are undeniably on form here — “Outside the window lay the precise and classical dignity of one of the few 17th-century London squares not yet delivered over to unnecessary luxury shops and portentous blocks of flats for the mistresses of millionaires” — his opening salvo with Strangeways writing an intellectually ‘hilarious’ general knowledge quiz is pompous and awful. Did this old-school-tie snobbishness ever go over well? It’s shit like this that does these books no favours. And this also marks the point at which an incisively different take on the GAD plot sighs, gives up, and lapses into conventions that show up as a retrograde step against the savagery and invention of the earlier sections.
It’s Strangeways who pumps all the enjoyment out of the book, apparently raddled and exhausted following a recent case — because, y’know, he’s such a champion of justice and people — yet self-satisfied enough to loudly declare in the local bar as a group of fisherman sit nearby that “A fishing-rod [is] a stick with a hook at one end and a fool at the other”. All around him Blake is working extra hard to make the people and the situation compelling — the relationship between young Phil Rattery and Cairnes/Lane proving especially effective, and some beautiful descriptions made with a poet’s insight, such as the following mid-speech change which brings with it a host of horrors on the topic of domestic abuse and the pressures people are subjected to out of sight:
[Her] voice was like the edge of a rusty, jagged blade: then it grew sweet and patient, a horrible change…