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