In The Spotlight: Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die

SpotlightHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Under the name of Nicholas Blake, poet Cecil Day-Lewis (Poet Laureate of the UK and the father of acclaimed actor Daniel Day-Lewis) wrote a series of novels featuring poet and amateur sleuth Nigel Strangeways. Many people don’t think this series gets the attention it deserves, so let’s take a look at it today. Let’s turn the spotlight on The Beast Must Die, the fourth in the Strangeways series.

The story begins with the diary of Frank Cairnes, a detective novelist who writes under the name of Felix Lane. Cairnes has been inconsolable since his son Martin ‘Martie’ was killed six months ago by a hit-and-run driver. Now he has a new mission. In fact, the first sentence of the novel expresses it perfectly:
 

‘I am going to kill a man.’
 

He goes on to explain that he has found a new purpose in tracking down the person who killed Martie and murdering him. Cairnes returns to the town he and Martie lived in at the time of the boy’s death, with the aim of finding out who was driving the car that killed his son.

After a bit of sleuthing, he discovers that the driver was most likely a man named George Rattery. He also learns that Rattery was with a starlet named Lena Lawson when Martie was killed. Now that he has that information, Cairnes grows out his beard, takes on his nom de plume, and wangles an introduction to the actress. Before long, they begin a romance; that’s how he learns that, in fact, she is Rattery’s sister-in-law.

With that, Cairnes has an ‘in’ to the Rattery household, and gets to know Rattery a little better. He finally gets his chance at his quarry one afternoon when the two men go sailing together. It turns out, though, that Rattery has already come to suspect that Cairnes wants to kill him; he’s found the diary in which Carines has outlined his plans. As he tells Cairnes, if anything happens to him, Cairnes will immediately be suspected. Cairnes counters with the fact that if the diary falls into the hands of the police, Rattery’s part in Martie’s death will be public. At that stalemate, the two men return to the dock.

Later that day, Rattery dies of what turns out to be poison that’s been put into his regular medicine. Through a mutual friend, Cairnes contacts Nigel Srangeways and asks his help. He claims that he did, indeed, originally plan to kill Rattery, but he didn’t poison the man. And Strangeways is inclined to believe him. After all, why plan to kill him on the boat and put poison in the medicine bottle? And, as Stangeways and an old acquaintance, Inspector Blount, soon find, there are several other suspects. And what’s interesting is, none of them really has a solid alibi.

Rafferty was abusive to both his wife, Violet, and his son, Phil. And he was having an affair with his business partner’s wife. What’s more, he didn’t get along with his sister-in-law, Lena, either. There are other people, too, who might have wanted him dead and would be happy to use Cairnes as a ‘fall guy.’ In the end, and after peeling back the layers of a lot of lies, Strangeways and Blount get to the truth about who killed Rattery and why.

This is a Golden Age whodunit in many ways. There is a set of likely suspects, all of whom are hiding something. There’s also a ‘gentleman detective,’ and a full explanation at the end. There’s also a police inspector who does the official work. And there’s an emphasis on the puzzle. Readers who enjoy classic and Golden Age mysteries will appreciate those aspects of the story. It’s also worth noting that, like many other Golden Age mysteries, this one has very little ‘onstage’ violence. Readers who prefer their crime fiction not to have gore in it will be pleased.

There is also, though, an element of the psychological in this novel. This isn’t purely an intellectual exercise. For one thing, there is an exploration of Rattery’s dysfunctional family (and it is). He and his downtrodden wife Violet live with his mother, who is a true Victorian, obsessed with family reputation. She is a harridan who rules the roost with an iron hand. All of that dysfunction has taken its toll on Phil, too. There’s also psychology involved as Strangeways and Blount consider who might have killed Rattery.

There’s a hint of the ‘had I but known’ element in the story as well. For example, at one point, Strangeways is having a conversation and thinks he sees stirring in the bushes nearby:
 
‘Had he gone to investigate that movement, it is just possible that the course of several people’s lives might have been profoundly altered. But he did not.’
 

That element doesn’t really overtake the story, though, at least not for me.

Except for the diary entries at the beginning of the novel, the story is told mostly from the point of view of Strangeways (in third person), so we get to see his character. He is happily married to Georgia Cavendish, whom fans of the series will remember meeting in Thou Shell of Death, and relies on her for part of his sleuthing. The novel does have some of the sexism of its age, but those who dislike weak and vulnerable women-as-victim characters will appreciate the fact that she is nothing like that. Because he’s a poet, Strangeways is also a reader, so there are a few quotes from what he’s read in the novel. It’s clear he’s a lover of the written word.

In many ways, the story is a very sad one. For one thing, there is the devastation left by Martie Cairnes’ death. Blake did not make light of what it’s like to lose a child. And the solution to the mystery is sad as well. Life is not all right again when the puzzle is solved. I think I can say without giving too much away that several lives really are changed forever, and not for the good. It’s not unrelentingly bleak though, as there are a few moments of wit. At one point, for instance, Strangeways is attacked with a golf putter late one night when he’s gotten a little too close to the truth. When he comes to, he stumbles up the stairs to his hotel room where his wife’s been asleep. She wakes when he comes in:
 
‘‘Hello, darling. Did you have a nice round of golf?’ she said.’
‘Well, as a matter of a fact, no. A bird wonked me with this. Not cricket. Not golf, I mean.’’
 

There are other places, too, where we see that sort of verbal wit.

The Beast Must Die is a Golden-Age whodunit with an element of psychology. It features a ‘gentleman detective’ in the classic tradition, family dynamics issues, and a group of suspects who are all hiding something. But what’s your view? Have you read The Beast Must Die? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight
 

Monday, 25 January/Tuesday, 26 January – The Merchant’s House – Kate Ellis

Monday 1 February/Tuesday 2 February – Maximum Bob – Elmore Leonard

Monday 8 February/Tuesday 9 February – The Unquiet Dead – Ausma Zehanat Khan

26 Comments

Filed under Cecil Day-Lewis, The Beast Must Die

26 responses to “In The Spotlight: Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die

  1. Col

    Interesting post, I never knew he was the father of Daniel. Probably not a series I will seek out though.

  2. Well once again I’ve learnt a lot – I haven’t heard of this book and nor did I realise he was the father of Daniel. Once again you’ve made your spotlight sound so very appealing and one that I want to read for sure.

  3. I loved this when I read it 40 years ago. Am tempted to pick it up again.

  4. Sounds intriguing! I had no idea Cecil Day-Lewis wrote crime fiction. And it’s a great first sentence – oh dear! Couldn’t you spotlight some really rotten books for a while? Just till I get the TBR under control… 😉

    • Bwahahahaha!!! Hey, turnabout and all that, FictionFan! 😉 – In all seriousness, This is an intriguing story in the Golden Age tradition. There are some ‘-isms’ that are likely to bother modern sensibilities. But it is an interesting book, and regarded by many as one of Day-Lewis’ best as Nicholas Blake. If you do get the chance to read it, I hope you’ll like it .

  5. I haven’t read this particular Nigel Strangeways book, Margot, although I’ve heard that it is one of the best in a very good series. I’ve read several others and I strongly recommend Thou Shell of Death in particular. It’s no surprise that a poet laureate would write books – even mysteries – that are both highly literate and witty.

    • Agreed, Les. And I do recommend The Beast Must Die. It really is one of the best ones in this series, in my opinion, and you’ll appreciate it all the more having read Thou Shell of Death. Day-Lewis certainly did write solid literate novels that are also good mysteries. If you get to this one, I hope you’ll like it.

  6. I believe I read this one ages ago, but have only a very faint recollection of it. Not sure there is any time to reread though…

  7. I haven’t read this, but Strangeways sounds like a fascinating character. I like endings that aren’t HEA, so I may have to add The Beast Must Die to the pile. So many books, so little time. 🙂

    • I think you’d find this one interesting, Sue. It’s got some interesting psychological aspects to it, and there’s really solid tension. And yes, the ending is complex – not a neatly tied-up package as the saying goes.

  8. Margot, this is a new author and series for me. It was interesting to read about the author’s background and I’m glad such writers are getting noticed and read. I liked the premise too and especially that first line. It smells of vengeance.

    • Vengeance certainly plays a role in this one, Prashant. And I agree that authors such as Day-Lewis/Blake deserve more notice than they sometimes get. If you do get the chance to read this one (I know how TBR and time are!), I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  9. I read this years ago – a very clever and involving book as I recall, and your piece makes me want to read it again. I liked the Blake murder stories, and also think Day Lewis wrote a handful of great poems.

    • I agree, Moira, about Day-Lewis. He was skilled as a poet and those Blake murder mysteries were well-constructed. As to this one, parts of it really are moving, , and I like the way the characters were developed.

  10. I reviewed his THE CORPSE IN THE SNOWMAN last December, when I was doing winter books. I enjoyed it, but not as much as you did this one, I think. I do plan on trying another.

    • I think The Beast Must Die is one of Day-Lewis/Blake’s better mysteries, Richard, I admit. I’ll be interested to know what you think of Blake if you get the chance to try more of his work.

  11. SteveHL

    I’ve read several of the Strangeways books but not this one. I guess I should get a copy.

    You may already know this, but there is a French film of this from 1969. The title in French is Que La Bête Meure ; the English language title is This Man Must Die . It’s on YouTube. It obviously doesn’t follow the book too closely; Strangeways isn’t a character in the movie.

    • Oh, that sounds interesting, Steve – thanks. I’ll have to look for the film. Even if it doesn’t resemble the book at all, there’s sometimes a lot of merit in a film if you simply take it as the film it is, rather than comparing it to a book version.

  12. THE BEAST MUST DIE is deservedly considered a classic of its kind. Having read it a couple of decades or so ago, if not longer, I remember mainly that the characters were vividly drawn and more complex than are usually found in Golden Age whodunits. Oh yes, and whodunit.

    Since you enjoyed BEAST, Margot, let me recommend a Blake stand-alone, THE PRIVATE WOUND, which I thought was equally excellent.

    • Thanks very much for the recommendation, Barry. I’ll have to check out The Private Wound. As you say, there are some very nicely-drawn characters in <i.The Beast Must Die. That’s one of the strengths of the novel, in my opinion.

  13. I have read lots of books by Nicholas Blake, but not recently. And I don’t think I have read this one. This one would be a good one to read soon.

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