#496: The Beast Must Die (1938) by Nicholas Blake

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“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…

— and then Nigel comes swanning in with public school spirit and arrogant bonhomie and you feel everyone cringe away with a roll of the eyes and a collective ‘Oh, great, here’s this arsehole again’.  And it’s especially vexing since we’re supposed to be blown away by his largesse at taking on another case so soon…yet the apparent pains he’s under to get to the truth suddenly come out of nowhere.  At the end, declare him a ruined and broken man who needs another break to recover, you feel like he’s surely putting it on; he, after all, is not the one whose life has been turned upside-down, yet he’s the diva swanning around and demanding everyone look at him and how difficult he‘s finding it all.  And this has always been my difficulty with Blake: he thinks Strangeways a far more charismatic character than he proves to be, dragging even the most promising plots and situations into the doldrums that we all might sit there with the sails up and nothing happening for 30 pages of Classical allusion and redbrick snobbery.  The singularly myopic sentiment that resulted in no-one ever telling Cecil Day-Lewis what a gargantuan bell-end of a detective he’d created has created reams of potentially-wonderful detective fiction left flagging and dragging come the close.  Not the legacy some of his plots deserve, but the one they have in my eyes.

512q-kdc6kl._sx326_bo1204203200_Case in point, the ending here is pretty smart, and another example of the sort of situation that GAD was able to manufacture to potentially devastating effect.  But 24 hours after finishing this I could not remember what comeuppance our guilty party faced — did they get away, were they arrested…what actually happened?  To not have Nigel’s chinless face gurning at me and quoting from the Aeneid was simply all I needed, though arguably not what Blake was going for.  I’ve certainly come to appreciate Blake’s writing more, as it’s been a number of years since I’ve picked up anything by him, but I think Strangeways will always rub me up the wrong way.  Such a brilliant start deserves more than to be mired in such unimaginatively traditional trappings come the latter stages; with a little more invention and bravery behind it this could have been something very special indeed.


Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime: The way the structure of the story metamorphoses over the course of the book appeals to me and the diary element is used exceptionally well. As a piece of evidence it reveals the truth in such a way that you can’t initially see it, (there is after all one highly significant literary allusion whose significance only dawned on me at the end), and of course by having the first third of the story given to us in this way with no alternative sources means that a number of assumptions are naturally built up within us, which are not then so easily dismantled when the narration changes.

Aidan @ Mysteries Ahoy!The detective phase of the novel is also handled extremely well and here, once again, Blake’s careful development of the novel’s structure pays off. Nigel’s introduction into the story is handled smoothly and feels at least reasonably credible. Because he already knows Cairnes and we have already become familiar with the other suspects we are able to get quickly stuck into the case. The investigation is perhaps not the most dynamic or surprising I have read. Characters’ motivations are clear from the outset and there are few really surprising moments. The interest lies in exploring characters’ psychology and relationships, both of which Blake does extremely well.

55 thoughts on “#496: The Beast Must Die (1938) by Nicholas Blake

  1. I was excited to see that this went up before I headed to bed. I was definitely curious to see what you made of it too and your review didn’t disappoint.

    Curiously while I think my review reads more positively, I had many of the same issues with it that you did. Strangeways’ pretension does irk me although I do cut him a tiny bit of slack by remembering that unlike Innes’ similarly pretentious Appleby he at least has reason to have a poetical nature. It also perhaps helps that he isn’t in it that much and by the time he appears I was invested in the puzzle.

    One thing I will say on that comparison is that it in my experience of Innes I usually feel that he is embarrassed to be writing a crime or mystery story whereas Blake seems to be having fun with his ideas. My perceptions may be off but I think when Blake gets literary it is because he thinks it is an interesting side to his character, not because he needs to create a seemingly endless literary game where people stand around and talk in Shakespearean quotations.

    Like you I did appreciate the ending though it seems in slightly different ways. The resolution did stick with me but I had some slight issues with understanding the killer’s motivations on one choice they make so while I initially appreciated the ending I have become less satisfied with it the more I considered it.

    To me the appeal of this book lies in its opening 40%. The premise is clever and I really admire the way that diary is utilized in the case. I take your point about how hard Blake works to draw some of the parallels and develop his themes but I do think he succeeds in creating something that feels surprisingly cohesive given that style shift. In that respect I do admire the work.

    The question of how to judge it as an inverted story is a tricky and potentially spoilery one that I struggled to get my head around how to explain. I think that’s the part I really struggled to voice in my own review. Without providing the reasoning, I think it is a clever idea that is executed effectively but that ultimately frustrated me. I enjoyed the journey a lot though and that does factor significantly into my feelings about the book.


    • I think any book that starts off with the line “I am going to kill a man” and follows the meticulous preparations of the writer in carrying out that plan qualifies as an inverted mystery. I’ve very carefully not mentioned anything about the victim of, or the context for, the murder when it happens because for me that’s far too far into the book and veers into spoiling all the anticipation (interestingly, seemingly every other reviewer of this doesn’t agree…). How it plays into those expectations is part of the fun, but the opening 40% plays as an inverted mystery and it’s only a spoiler to call it such when people start questioning whether it’s a spoiler to call it such 🙂

      The other Blakes I’ve read Have all been ebooks, and I find my patience wears thinner with them, weirdly, which might in part contribute to my vexation with Nige. I have Thou Shell of Death in paperback and will get to it later this year, and just hope I’ve mellowed on him by then. But you make a great point about his poetical nature, and that’s certainly something I’ll weigh when I return to this series.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I didn’t even feel particularly happy discussing the shift that happens 40% of the way in but then almost every edition seems to spoil that too. It is very vexing as I would love to know what that would feel like if I weren’t already anticipating it.


        • I was able to get to that shift wihtout knowing it in advance, and really enjoyed the way it develops. Thought it was a very smart conceit, and so figured I should preserve it for people on the off-chance this is the first review they read of it, which I appreciate is unlikely as all hell. A man can dream…


  2. The mixture of thriller and whodunit hete reminded me of ABC when I first read it and I liked it more than you. I don’t find Strangways very compelling either but prefer him in many ways to the Alleyn and Wimsey types, though I think it would be wrong to group them together. His development in the series is much more varied and unusual. When Claude Chabrol adapted this for his movie version he dropped the detective entirely, to good effect. Interesting to compare with his film of TEN DAY’S WONDER which has an Ellery substitute for no very good reason.


    • It felt to me — and thank-you for reminding me of this — a little like how Poirot crops up in The Hollow, mainly because Christie thought her readers would want Poirot there. Removing Nigel wouldn’t harm this in my eyes, especially given the way it ends…might have to check the movie out (and I understand the BBC are looking to adapt this, I believe).

      There are shades of Wimsey/Vane and Alleyn/Troy in the marital relationship here, but I agree Strangeways doesn’t fit the mold of those detectives — he feels more organic than either, it’s just a shame he’s an organic pompous blowhard 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Been a long time since I read this and I don’t remember much other than the fact it went down well with me, and I don’t think Strangeways bothered me a great deal. I recently wen back to read Blake’s first mystery, A Question of Proof, and rather liked that too, so I’ll probably be dipping into his stuff a bit more.


    • I’ll definitely come back to Blake this year, he hasn’t put me off like Innes has, but I do wish his detective wasn’t so…him. So much else here is very effective, and the plotting is really rather accomplished in key regards, so I’m hopeful that my advanced years will now be able to tolerate Nigel more. Time will tell…


  4. Just like Colin, it’s been ages since I read this one and can barely recall anything, but remember liking it. However, it certainly isn’t Blake’s best detective novel. A Question of Proof, Thou Shell of Death, There’s Trouble Brewing and Head of a Traveller are all better and more memorable mysteries.

    You’re going to review Murder Among the Angells next?! 😀


    • TSoD will be my next Blake, barring any desperate interventions. Dunno when, but I’ll bear in mind that you feel it among his best, given how chequered my history with Blake is.

      Doing the Scarletts in order, so it’s Cat’s Paw next. Angells…at some point 😁


        • Sorry, TC, got my chronological thing going on, so Cat’s Paw it has to be (and, indeed, currently 50 pages of is). I fully endow you with “I told you so” rights when I get to Angells, but I’ve gotta do this my way!


  5. Great review without swerving towards spoilers, which seems to be an issue with this book. I have it on my “kind of soon to be read pile” but was able to enjoy your write up within worrying about hints.

    I do hate when an author tries to illustrate the brilliance of their detective with obscure literature quotes, etc. I have to say I laughed at the fishing pole comment though, especially imagining it being made in front of local fishermen at a bar. Carr did a great job with Patrick Butler in that respect because Butler would have ended up with a broken rib and a black eye. He was pompous, yes, but he got his comeuppance for it.


    • Yeah, the infallibility of the Great Detective is a balloon that needed puncturing far more often — and is one of those concepts that has carried over into modern literature with the likes of Jack Reacher never losing a fight: whatever your hero does, they’re right to do it.

      The best and most enduring of the Great Detectives managed to undercut any such issues of arrogance without having to fall on their sword in any meaningful way: Fell at least had his grouchy side that made him loveable, and H.M. was an obnoxious prick but shot through with genuine bathos. Poirot’s pompousness was always a little knowing, Roger Sheringham is a figure of parody for how consistently wrong he is, Cockrill was unknowable but caught in moments of sly humanity, Beef and Townsend bounced off each other with equal disdain and brilliance — when it’s done well, it really works. Strangeways is just a prick.


  6. I agree with you that Strangeways never should have been let within a thousand miles of this novel. I don’t mind him so much in other books, but in BEAST the story goes off the rails the moment he comes in. (Raymond Chandler thought the same thing–it’s one of the few times I agree with him about a GAD book.)

    Have you read MINUTE FOR MURDER? It has a quasi-impossible crime and I think it’s one of his best books, but no one ever seems to talk about it. I also remember enjoying A QUESTION OF PROOF and THOU SHELL OF DEATH when I read them many years ago.


  7. Oh, JJ.


    Just to make one point, the allegedly strange prose you quote is actually very fine, it’s just you missed the point. He has made a decision, come to a resolve, and now he is, with some surprise, observing his own reaction and feelings. They are not what he expected. It is odd to him that he can decide, well then I will become a murderer, and find the thought as natural as, well then I will become a father. He is not, he sees with a certain detachment, who he expected to be — but so be it. Blake conveys this elegantly and succinctly.

    It’s rare to find a really good prose stylist in GAD; when you do you gripe!


    • Oh, sure, the thing coming most to my attentio here is how wrong I am about everything 🙂

      I chose not to get into my general problem with diary-based narratives being deeply false to begin with — no-one actually writes direct speech in their diaries to the extent that a novel requires, so the utilisation of it always bothers me — but, well, it all feels far too stagey, and the analogy, while I understand it, doesn’t ring true to my eye or brain.

      But, yeah, I accept the point and shall expect my wafer-thin credibility to suffer even further as a result: first I love c+Crofts and then I scorn Blake? Good heavens, why does anyone read these crazy opinions?


      • “Shits and giggles” is the phrase that pops to mind. 😉😁😈

        Well, diaries can be a problem, but so much of GAD relies on the outlandishly implausible, why single that out? But we all get irked by something. For me the artificial trick that got old fast is the dying clue. I stopped reading later EQ because I could not stomach another dying clue. When they drum you out I’ll defend you about at least some of EQ!

        A good example of a diary murder mystery is S S Murder by QPQ. I recommend that highly.


        • Oh, it’s not just in GAD that this epistlatory approach vexes me — I’ve never read a book based around a diary (from Dracula all the way up to Bridget Jones) where that framing failed to irritate me…I just find it so difficult to get caught up in them, probably on account of my tendency to over-think.

          Dying clues I enjoy in principle, but the reasoning that leads to their solution tends to be the GAD equivalent of guessing a computer password in a mid-90s thriller: “Well, obviously it was going to be the alternate letters of his mothers maiden name plus the sum of the days of his prime-numbered children’s birthdays, fed through a box cipher whose codeword is the German diminutive form of the middle name of the instructor who taught him basket-weaving for three weeks in the summer of 1976. Simple!”

          They’re fun, but not exactly easy to play along with.


  8. So Nigel Strangeways is a “prick” and an “arsehole”? That’s rather hard on one of the most likeable sleuths in fiction. Just because someone’s been to public school and university (Oxbridge, NOT redbrick), is clever, literate, and good-natured, doesn’t mean he’s a chinless wonder or a “gargantuan bell-end”. You object to Blake’s perceived intellectual snobbery; inverted snobbery is equally detestable.


    • Well, if anything, it’s actually a gross insult to two of the most useful parts of the body…man, I feel bad about pulling the waste management systems of millions of years of evolution into this. I apologise to penises and arseholes the world over.

      I have no intention of defending a claim of inverse snobbery. If that’s your take, I can’t help you — sorry, Nick, I don’t rise to personal accusations. If you decide to see it and find it or me detestable, I’ll be genuinely sorry to lose you as a reader.

      However, considering that my perspectives on these books is typically fixated on the era in which they were written, and the era in which these were written were rife with a class consciousness that pervaded all levels of British society (from forelock tugging servants all the way up to entails on wills obliging the treatment of vast estates long after their owners’ deaths), the fact that so much of Strangeways’ betterment is rammed down the throat of the reader frustrates me. The overwhelming majority of readers will not understand the majority of that quiz he’s writing, for one. It’s not even especially humourous, it’s just pompous. Equally, his public disdain for the fishermen — what purpose does that serve, since it’s not funny, not clever, and simply an attmept to demonstrate how much he separates himself from the common man (as Ben points out, there’s no comeuppance for being so arrogant — his wife rolls her eyes and that’s it). I’ve read six books of this sort of thing, and it’s gotten boring.

      I’d hate to think this was going to vreat some sort of antagonism with anyone, that was never my intent. I apologise whole-heartedly if I’ve offended you or given you recourse to view my opinions disfavourably; but, well, nobody’s perfect.


      • I really hope no one is seriously offended or expects an apology over your negative opinion of a fictional character. For all we poke fun at you I’d think that we’d all take the same ribbing back and in jest. Except Brad, who plots vengeance against all of us, of course.


        • Hey, look, I’ve done well if it took me 497 posts before someone took offence. But, as I’ve said and Nick has now highlighted, I take responsibility for being less circumspect in my language — I guess Strangeways really does just get under my skin. Lesson learned, no hard fellings anywhere, lt’s all move on.

          Except, yeah, Brad. Woof, the things he still hold grudges over are phenomenal…


      • No, you haven’t lost a reader. You have one of the liveliest detective fiction blogs. This post, though, seemed abusive rather than your usual trenchant, well-reasoned analysis. I look forward to your next post – and hope it’s fairer.

        I certainly don’t find Blake snobbish; he is, though, one of the English literary fantasists (Chesterton, Sayers, Allingham, Mitchell, Innes, Crispin), a school you don’t much rate. Do they appeal to humanities students rather than mathematicians / scientists?

        Nigel’s always seemed one of the most human, down to earth sleuths – clever, of course, but interested in, and able to get along with a wide range of people. Certainly not arrogant.

        There are dozens of sleuths more snobbish or unlikeable than Strangeways – Colonel Gethryn and Sir Clinton Driffield, for a start; Philo Vance; Nero Wolfe; Reggie Fortune, too, perhaps, self-proclaimed leader of the common man.

        The questionnaire which you so dislike is high spirits in the Yeatman-Sellar 1066 vein, comedy in an otherwise serious book. (And great for confounding English teachers.)

        I agree that Beast isn’t Blake’s best work. Chabrol’s Que la bete meure has a more interesting resolution.

        I’d suggest, if you’re game to try more Blake
        *A Question of Proof
        *Thou Shell of Death
        *There’s Trouble Brewing (his most Left-wing, Realist book)
        *The Smiler wuth the Knife (a Left-wing thriller, with plucky explorer heroine taking on the league of British fascists)
        *Head of a Traveller (combines a tight detective story with a study of poetic inspiration).
        Maybe one of the solid later Blakes like The Dreadful Hollow, End of Chapter, or The Worm of Death.

        I think you’ve read TCOT Abominable Snowman and The Widow’s Cruise.


        • Worm of Death was one I remember not getting on well with, as was Abominable Snowman, and (I belueve) Dreadful Hollow. It’s been a number of years, so I can’t be entirely sure on that last one, though (I oce read the same Harlan Coben book twice in a six month period without realising until about 80% through, so this isn’t entirely surprising).

          Thou Shell of Death will be next from Blake, who knows when. And, yeah, I acknowledge that a mixture of tiredness, frustration, and poor choices led to my opinions being somewhat poorly phrased. Next time I don’t like some aspect of a book this vehemently maybe I’ll delay posting the review for a week to give me some time to be a little more considered in my expression.


          • Writing reviews of a book one hates can be cathartic and fun – but taking a step back and looking at an article with a fresh eye is a good idea. I’ve spiked a few posts myself. Besides, I often find I can express myself more clearly.


  9. Oh, for Godsake why can’t we all get along! There’s so much banter over here that everytime I find a snide remark hidden among the jibing and punning and emojis I’m genuinely taken aback. I thought this place was the equivalent of a 70s lovefest among the vintage mystery blogs. It’s a sorry state of affairs when we all have to defend our words and opinions among people who we think are our colleagues and friends. Worse yet — feel the need to apologize and placate for simply speaking our mind. They’re just books and fictional characters. Ease up, gang. [Insert rolling eyes and exasperated sigh emoji here] OK, no flippancy here for a change. I’m basically sympathising with you, JJ. I feel I went through something like this yesterday at my outcast’s outpost in this blogosphere.

    I absolutely loved the French movie adaptation of BEAST IN VIEW. I think I read the book. But can’t remember it at all. (I’m allowed that because I’m fast approaching my sixth decade) I did read Thou Shell of Death and remember it well. It’s a fine detective novel. You may actually like that one and win back all your frenemies to the lovable emoji typing friend side when you post a favorable review. Just watch the use of “arsehole”, I guess, even in jest.


  10. Nigel is definitely one of those detectives who isn’t as likeable as his creator seems to think he is, and is all the more irritating for it (see also: Pam and Jerry North, The Great Merlini.) Annoying characters who were deliberately written that way are a lot easier to take (Roger Sheringham, Gervase Fen, and from the ranks of the Watsons, Lionel Townsend). And yeah, that “quiz” is pretty dire.

    There should be a list of detective stories featuring series characters that would have been better without them. Ellery Queen’s The Glass Village was originally supposed to have Ellery in it, and I can’t imagine it being as good with him as it is without him. And I believe Agatha Christie stuck Poirot into some of her later books because putting him on the cover sold the copies. I’m not sure if TBMD falls into that category, but I’m going to think it over.


    • Oh, Pam and Jerry North — hairy Aaron, what a frustrating pair! They’re Jeff and Haila Troy with none of the wit, sophistication, charm, humanity, foibles, insight, brains, humour, and skilled writing. Man, I was so excited for Rue Morgue Press to put out a Troy book every so often, and then they went under and we’ll probably get no more for years now. And consoling myself by reading about the Norths would be like reading Rupert Penny’s last book and diving into the works of Louise Penny for sustenance.

      As for books that would be better without their series character…I suggext The Monogram Murders, Open Casket, and the other one for starters… 🙂


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