Friday, 11 March 2011

Forgotten Book - Thou Shell of Death


My choice for today’s Forgotten Book is Thou Shell of Death by Nicholas Blake. It dates from 1936, and was the author’s second book featuring the likeable investigator Nigel Strangeways. The Blake name concealed the identity of Cecil Day Lewis, who was Poet Laureate from 1968 until his death in 1972.

I haven’t read many Blake books over the years, but this one impressed me so much I will soon seek out others. It’s a well-written story, as you would expect, but the plot is also absolutely excellent.

A famous airman, Fergus O’Brien, calls Nigel in because he is being menaced by anonymous threats, foretelling his demise on Boxing Day (I gulped a bit when I read this, as my own Waterloo Sunset opens with Harry Devlin receiving a message that he is to die on Midsummer’s Day – happily, there is no further resemblance between the stories.)

Sure enough, O’Brien is found shot dead on Boxing Day in a hut surrounded by snow. A near-fatal attack is followed by a cleverly contrived murder – which member of the Christmas house party is responsible? The solution is splendid, with a literary clue that I failed to spot. A classic of the Golden Age, which I recommend.

17 comments:

Jerry House said...

I remember this forgotten book. I really liked it.

Morgenländer said...

"Thou Shell of Death" is my favorite Nicholas Blake; in my opinion it's fra better than the more famous "The Beast must die" where Blake invites us to sympathise with a highly unlikeable scheming murderer.

I enjoyed "Minute for Murder" and "Head of a Traveller", too.

Maxine said...

I read all the Nicholas Blake books years ago, and though I can't remember very much about them, I did enjoy them very much. Claude Chabrol made a couple of them (or more?) into films starring Stephane Audran, his wife, I believe.

Elizabeth Foxwell said...

I really liked this one too, Martin. Rue Morgue Press has reissued _Thou Shell of Death_:
http://www.ruemorguepress.com/catalog/blake_thoushell.html

pattinase (abbott) said...

One of my favorite writers.

Fiona said...

That does sound good - shades of Christie, of course, but you make sound a bit more cerebral!

John said...

Blake is certainly getting his due - that's two in two weeks. I have a small pile of his books I've been amassing for the past two years. So far only read A Question of Proof - the boys' school shenanigans one. For it's title alone The Corpse in the Snowman always intrigued me. I think it's called The Abominable Snowman in the UK.

Yvette said...

This is the only Nicholas Blake book I've ever read. Now to find the rest of 'em.

P.S. Martin, I read THE CIPHER GARDEN the other day and liked it very much. I've now ordered a few more of your Lake District mysteries from the library. (In fact, I'm headed there now.)

BV Lawson said...

And Martin's latest Lake District Mystery, "The Hanging Wood" is released in April! Looking forward to it.

vegetableduck said...

The murder is very nicely turned here, in contrived but appealing Golden Age fashion. At this time Blake was still interested in plotting complexity. By the 1950s he was expressing much greater interest in criminal psychology. In the 1930s, he praised Agatha Christie and even Miles Burton (a writer it has been more fashionable in modern times to denigrate)!

John, I have to wonder whether Blake had read The Big Sleep before writing Snowman. It's interest in vice and women's sexuality is quite striking.

I am glad Blake is being reprinted by Rue Morgue, because there's no good reason why most of his books should not be reprinted. For a while there has been a tendency to give him mention only for The Beast Must Die, which is unfortunate.

He is close enough to the Crime Queens' novel of manners form to be popular with today's readers (literary quotations, amateur gentleman detective, intelligent, talented female love interest, good banter).

While the Rue Morgue editors unfortunately mistakenly announce that Christie never "evolved" in the 1940s (thus completely missing the evolution her work took in the form of such books as And Then There Were None, The Hollow, Five Little Pigs, etc.), it is true that the Blake books changed somewhat over time.

The Worm of Death, which appeared right before P. D. James' first, is as dark, introspective and gloomy as an James admirer could desire.

Compare James' Original Sin and with Blake's End of Chapter and the similarities are very striking indeed.

Les Blatt said...

This is one of my favorite Blakes. The clues are fairly presented (and I missed the same one you did), the country-house setting is well presented, and the characters are marvelous. It's also the mystery where Nigel Strangeways meets the woman he will eventually marry.

vegetableduck said...

It's interesting to compare this one with The Worm of Death from a quarter century letter and see how Blake's tone had changed. Worm has a very strong atmosphere, though its gloom is oppressive and the plot's not nearly as satisfying from a puzzle perspective as those of some of his earlier books.

For the period between 1940 and 1960 I think the best detective novels by him are the much-praised Minute for Murder, Head of a Traveller, End of Chapter and The Widow's Cruise.

All his mysteries were reprinted in paperback by Harper Perennial in their wonderful reprint series from the 1970s and 1980s.

vegetableduck said...

BTW, does Rue Morgue have any plans on reprinting all his books, anyone know? That would be an advance.

Martin Edwards said...

What a great set of comments. Thank you all very much!
Yvette, delighted you liked The Cipher Garden!

Elizabeth Foxwell said...

Rue Morgue has also reprinted Blake's _A Question of Proof_:
http://www.ruemorguepress.com/catalog/blake_question.html

K Eldron said...

There's an interesting discussion of "Thou Shell.." and the work that provides its "literary clue", in Steve Lewis's Mystery File archive:

http://mysteryfile.com/blog/?p=653

I like Blake's work, not least for the variety of his locations and his skill in evoking them: ranging from the inescapable jollity of a holiday camp ('Malice in Wonderland'- a great title, since used for several films and a rap album!)to the claustrophobic Thames-side streets of 'Worm of Death'. In some ways he reminds me of Margery Allingham, in that he allows his well-connected main character, Nigel Strangeways, to mature over the years and also uses him in both spy/thriller and 'pure' detective novels. It's good to see this new interest in him!

Christine said...

I've read all them at one time or another with great pleasure and I think I am right in saying that Nigel Strangeways was based on W. H. Auden!