Category Archives: Nicholas Blake

Golden Slumbers Fill Your Eyes*

As this is posted, it’s 174 years since the publication of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven. And just a few days ago, we celebrated Burns Night. It’s all got me in mind of poetry. I, myself, am most definitely not a skilled poet (although I did write a few very bad poems that have mercifully been deleted). But I truly respect those who can write poetry. It’s a rich and unique form of expression that I wish got more notice than it does.

Of course, Poe wrote crime and horror stories as well as poetry, and he’s not the only one to weave poetry and other forms of writing into his work. Agatha Christie, for instance, also wrote poetry, although she is better known for her stories, plays and novels. There are plenty of crime-fictional poets, too.

For example, Nicholas Blake was a pseudonym for British Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis. Under that name, he wrote a series of novels featuring a poet, Nigel Strangeways, who is also a private investigator. Most of the mysteries he investigates do not, strictly speaking, involve poems. But mentions of poems and poets are integrated into the stories in several places.

Cat Connor’s FBI Special Agent (later Supervising Special Agent) Gabrielle ‘Ellie’ Conway Iverson is a poet, too. When that series begins (with Killerbyte), she and her partner, Cormac ‘Mac’ Connelly, moderate an online poetry group called Cobwebs. Matters turn very deadly when first one, then another of the group members are murdered, and cryptic poems left near the bodies. As the series goes on, Ellie gets more involved in her FBI work, but that doesn’t mean she stops loving poetry.

One of Julie Smith’s series features New Orleans-based private investigator Talba Wallis. She works for Eddie Valentino, who owns E.V. Anthony Investigations. Talba is also a poet, who makes time whenever she can for poetry slams and other poetry events. In fact, in Louisiana Bigshot, she gets a new case when fellow poet Clayton Robineau wants to know if her fiancé, Jason Wheeling, is cheating on her. Talba doesn’t want to be responsible for a friend’s pain if it turns out Jason is really unfaithful. But, she takes the case, and soon finds out that he has been cheating. Shortly afterwards, Clayton dies, apparently of a heroin overdose. But neither Talba nor Jason believes that it was suicide or an accident. Talba begins to investigate, and finds that this is, indeed, a murder, and that it’s related to the victim’s past.

Qiu Xiaolong, himself a poet, is the author of a Shanghai-based series featuring Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police. He is a hardworking police detective who often finds himself mixed up in very delicate cases that involve high-ranking people. Chen is also a poet, who studied literature in school, and still contributes his work to literary publications when he can. Chen’s love of poetry isn’t a critical part of solving his cases most of the time. But poems occur to him quite frequently. For example, in The Shanghai Redemption, Chen has been stripped of a lot of his authority, because he’s succeeded once too often in embarrassing someone important. He has a new, fancy title, but it means nothing, and he’s increasingly isolated. He has the chance to redeem himself by succeeding in his new assignment: being in charge of a corruption case against a so-called Red Prince – a high-ranking but very corrupt Party member. It’s going to be a dangerous case, though, and Chen knows he has no real allies or support. As he thinks of his situation, he is reminded of a poem by Cao Cao:

‘The moon bright, the stars sparse/the blackbird flies to the south/circling the tree three times/without finding a branch to perch itself…’

Fans of the series know that Chen often thinks of poems and poets as he works through his cases.

And then there’s Ian Vasquez’ Lonesome Point, which introduces Belize-born brothers Leo and Patrick Varela. They moved to Miami as young men, where they have made lives for themselves. Patrick is a very promising politician, who’s on the verge of getting real national attention. As you can imagine, his reputation and image are very important to him, and he and his people don’t want anything to come to light that might damage that image. For his part, Leo works in a mental hospital. He’s also a poet who works on his writing when he can. He and Patrick have no outright animosity towards each other, but they’ve gone their separate ways, and don’t see one another very much, Then, Leo gets a visit from an old friend from Belize, Freddy Robinson. It seems that Freddy is representing some ‘business associates’ who want Herman Massani, a patient at the mental hospital, released to them. He may have information about voter fraud that could implicate Patrick, and Freddy’s contacts want that information. Leo demurs at first, but Freddy mentions that everyone has secrets, including the Varela brothers. And he’s right. The Varelas are hiding a dark truth from their past in Belize, and Freddy will reveal what he knows if he doesn’t get what he wants. Leo contacts Patrick, who wants to wait and see what will happen. But everything soon spins very much out of control, and it’s clear that someone’s playing a very dangerous political game, and is not afraid to kill as a part of it.

See what I mean? Poets and poetry are everywhere, including in crime fiction. These are just a few examples. Your turn.


Want more poetry? Visit Finding Time to Write, where your host, Marina Sofia, sometimes shares her fine poetry, and her knowledge of poetry and poets. Also check out D’Verse Poets, a gathering place for all sorts of different poets.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ Golden Slumbers, which is based on Thomas Dekkers’ poem Cradle Song.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Cat Connor, Cecil Day-Lewis, Edgar Allan Poe, Ian Vasquez, Julie Smith, Nicholas Blake, Qiu Xiaolong

Why’s Everybody Always Pickin’ On Me?*

An interesting post from writer Carol Balawyder has got me thinking about fictional writers. In the post, she reviews Olga Núñez Miret’s Escaping Psychiatry: Beginnings. I’ll admit I’ve not read this novella, but one plot point in the story really got my attention. In it, the protagonist gets involved in a court case where a writer has been accused of murder.

Now, the real-life writers I know – even the crime writers – are very nice people who wouldn’t consider committing murder. And, yet, there are plenty of crime novels where a writer is accused. Perhaps it’s just that writers have a (completely unfounded!) bad reputation. Whatever the reason, there are several examples of this plot point, and I’m not sure I like it!

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), for instance, a detective novelist named Mr. Clancy is on a flight from Paris to London. One of his fellow passengers, Marie Morisot, dies during the flight of what looks at first to be an allergic reaction to a wasp sting. But that’s soon proved not to be true. Hercule Poirot is on the same flight, and he works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who the real criminal is. The only possible suspects are the other people in the plane’s cabin, so Mr. Clancy becomes a ‘person of interest.’ In fact, two other passengers who interest themselves in the case actually follow Mr. Clancy one evening to see whether he does anything suspicious. Mr. Clancy is, perhaps, not the neatest of housekeepers, and he does get – erm – distracted. But that’s hardly a reason to suspect that he’s a killer.

Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die introduces mystery novelist Frank Cairnes. He is devastated when his son, Martin ‘Martie,’ is killed by a hit-and-run driver. In fact, his diary begins with the sentence,

‘I am going to kill a man.’

His plan is to find out who was driving the car that killed Martie and exact retribution. Little by little, he learns that a man named George Rattery was probably responsible. So, he finds an ‘in’ to the Rattery home and makes his plans. His idea is to drown Rattery during a boat trip. But that doesn’t happen, and the two go back to shore. Later that day, Rattery dies of poisoning, and it’s clear that the poisoning had been planned in advance. Cairnes is suspected, but, as he tells PI Nigel Strangeways, why would he poison a man he’d already planned to drown? And why try to drown a man he was going to poison? Strangeways takes the case and, in the end, finds out who the real killer is.

Mystery novelist Harriet Vane makes her first appearance in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Strong Poison. She’s been arrested for murdering her former lover, Philip Boyes, and there is evidence against her. She was the last person known to have seen the victim, and they had quarreled. As the novel begins, she’s on trial for the crime. Lord Peter Wimsey attends the trial and finds himself smitten with the defendant. In fact, he resolves to clear her name, so that he can marry her. He gets his chance when the jury cannot reach a verdict. The new trial is scheduled for a month later, so Lord Peter has to work quickly to find out who the real killer is. His faith in a writer is reassuring.

In Caroline Graham’s Written in Blood, the members of the Midsomer Worthy Writers Circle is trying to decide whom they’ll invite to speak at their next meeting. After a lot of discussion, it’s decided to invite successful author Max Jennings. One of the members of the group, Gerald Hadleigh, has a history with Jennings, so he’s elected to write Jennings and invite him. Hadleigh has good reason not to want Jennings to accept, since their history has been unpleasant. But he doesn’t want the group to know about that, so he reluctantly writes the letter. To his consternation, Jennings agrees to speak to the group. Late on the night of Jennings’ visit, Hadleigh is murdered. Inspector Tom Barnaby and Sergeant Gavin Troy investigate, and they look into all of the group members’ relationships to find out who would want to kill Hadleigh.

And it’s not just fictional detective story writers who have to cope with this bias. In Peter May’s Coffin Road, for instance, a man stumbles ashore on the Isle of Harris. He has no idea who he is or what he’s doing there. He soon learns, though, that he is a writer who’s apparently been living on the island for the last eighteen months, working on a book about a local Hebrides mystery: the 1900 disappearance of three lighthouse keepers. In his effort to fill in the missing blanks, so to speak, the writer tries to trace his movements from the time he lost his memory. What he finds, though, is a dead man. Now, there’s a terrible possibility that he’s committed a murder. Detective Sergeant (DS) Gunn investigates, and discovers a link between the lighthouse keepers’ disappearance, the dead man, and an Edinburgh teen who becomes convinced that her father (who is supposed to have committed suicide) is still alive. Just because you’re writing about a place doesn’t mean you’ve killed someone, does it?

You see what I mean? Writers are very nice people. I don’t know a single one who would commit murder. And, yet, they keep coming up as suspects in crime novels. One has to wonder about the bias…

Thanks, Carol, for the inspiration. Folks, do visit Carol’s fine blog. And check out her writing. You won’t be sorry.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s Charlie Brown.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Caroline Graham, Dorothy L. Sayers, Nicholas Blake, Peter May

Her Name Was Magill and She Called Herself Lil*

Many people don’t go by the names they were given at birth. They may use a middle name, a nickname, or another name entirely. Sometimes, that’s not a big problem. And it’s perfectly legal to go through the process of changing one’s name. But name changes, and using different names, can make for real challenges for the police.

If the police are doing background checks on one name, they may not know to look for information under another name as well. There may also be connections between people involved in a case, but the police might not know about those connections if one of those people is living and working under a different name.

Name issues come up quite a bit in crime fiction, and that makes sense. They can add plot points and twists, character layers, and more. But they’re most effective if they’re used carefully and credibly (and not as a big surprise at the end of a story!).

For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Boscombe Valley Mystery, James McCarthy is arrested for the murder of his father, Charles. There’s evidence against him, too, as he was seen and overheard quarreling with his father just before the murder. He doesn’t have an alibi, either. But he claims he’s innocent, and his fiancée, Alice Turner, believes him. She asks the police to go over the case again, and Inspector Lestrade reluctantly agrees. He enlists Sherlock Holmes to investigate, and Holmes and Dr. Watson look into the matter. They find that, just before he died, McCarthy uttered what seemed at the time to be a meaningless jumble of words. But it turns out that he was actually saying the name of his killer. Once Holmes works out what that name is and to whom it belongs, he solves the case.

There are a few Agatha Christie stories in which names turn out to matter a great deal. I won’t give sleuths or titles for fear of spoilers. But in several that I can think of, the fact that people are using different names plays a major role in a case. Very often those changed names hide family or other connections to an investigation. And when the sleuth finds out what the character’s real name is, the pieces start to fall into place.

In Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die, we are introduced to mystery novelist Frank Cairnes. He writes under the name of Felix Lane, and that’s how most people know him. From the beginning of the story, we learn that he is planning to kill a man. Six months earlier, Carines’ beloved son, Martin ‘Martie,’ was killed in a hit-and-run incident, and Cairnes intends to kill the man who was driving the car. After a bit of detective work, Cairnes discovers that the driver was probably a man named George Rattery. Using his pen name, he finds a way to get an ‘in’ to Rattery’s home and is soon staying there as a guest. His plan is for Rattery to have a ‘drowning accident’ while they are out boating together. But, although the two men do go out on the water, the plan doesn’t work, because Rattery has found out about it. They return to land, and, later that afternoon, Rattery dies of what turns out to be poison. Cairnes says that he is innocent. After all, why would he plan to poison a man he planned to drown? He asks poet and PI Nigel Strangeways to investigate, and Strangeways agrees. He finds that this case is both simpler and more complicated than it seems on the surface.

Mari Hannah’s The Murder Wall is the first of her Kate Daniels novels. In it, Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Daniels gets the chance to be Senior Investigating Officer (SIO) when Alan Stephens is murdered in his home. In one plot thread, Daniels comes to believe that this murder is linked to two murders that occurred almost a year earlier. At first, the connection isn’t that obvious. But then there’s another murder. And another. These deaths are linked, and Daniels faces real danger as she gets close to the truth about the deaths. It turns out that one person’s change of name has meant that a major clue isn’t picked up at first. It’s not until Daniels learns about the name change that she makes the connection.

And then there’s Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Unquiet Dead, the first in her Esa Khattak/Rachel Getty series. Both work for the Community Policing Service (CPS) of the Canadian federal government, which is usually concerned with anti-bigotry and other community issues. So it’s a surprise when Khattak is asked to investigate the death of Christopher Drayton, whose body was found at the bottom of Scarborough (Ontario) Bluffs. His fall could be accidental, but it’s unlikely. In either case, it’s not the sort of investigation that usually concerns the CPS. Then, Khattak learns that Drayton may have been Dražen Krstić, a notorious Bosnian war criminal known as the butcher of Srebrenica. If so, there could be many reasons for someone to want him dead. And if that’s who Drayton was, it makes sense that he would go by a different name to escape his enemies. But if that’s true, how did a war criminal get into Canada? The case has delicate and challenging implications on political, social, and other levels.

Going by a different name doesn’t necessarily mean trouble. But in crime fiction, the answer to the question, ‘What’s in a name?’ is sometimes, ‘Everything.’ These are just a few examples. Your turn.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ Rocky Raccoon.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ausma Zehanat Khan, Mari Hannah, Nicholas Blake

It’s Just Those Ordinary Moments We Adore*

One of the ways authors can amplify tension in their novels is to include simple domestic scenes (e.g. setting the table, folding laundry, etc.). Those very ordinary scenes can serve as a contrast to the tension the author’s building, and make it even stronger. If you’ve ever been through a time of real tension, but still sat down to eat, or washed dishes, you know how that contrast works in real life. It does in crime fiction, too.

Agatha Christie used that contrast in several of her stories. For instance, in And Then There Were None, ten people are invited for a stay on Indian Island, off the Devon coast. They’re all invited for different reasons, and they all have their personal reasons for accepting the invitation. Their host isn’t present when they arrive, but everyone settles in. After dinner on the first night, they’re all shocked when each person is accused of having caused the death of at least one other person. Not long afterwards, one of the guests suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Later that night, another guest dies. Now, it’s clear that someone has lured these people to the island, and is killing them. The survivors will have to stay alive if they’re going to find out who the killer is. As you can imagine, a great deal of suspense is built up as the characters suspect each other of being the killer. At one point, a few of them are in the kitchen, getting a meal ready. The preparations are, on the surface, normal enough. And that throws the underlying tension into stark relief. You’re absolutely right, fans of Murder in Mesopotamia.

In Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die, mystery novelist Frank Cairnes decides that he is going to commit murder. Six months earlier, his beloved son Martin ‘Martie’ was killed in a hit-and-run tragedy. Cairnes is devastated, and wants to find the person responsible, and kill that person. He moves back to the town where the tragedy occurred, and starts to ask a few questions. It doesn’t take long before he learns that a man named George Rattery was probably driving the car that killed Martie. He manages to get an ‘in’ to meet Rattery and his wife, and, soon enough, he’s invited to stay with them. Then, he works out his plan. He decides he’ll go sailing with Rattery, and, when they’re out alone on the water, he’ll drown his enemy. But, of course, he’ll have to get Rattery to agree to go sailing. One afternoon at lunch, he brings up the topic. It’s a regular lunch, where everyone’s eating, talking, and so on. But, for Cairnes, it’s an important part of putting his plan in motion. And there’s a lot of tension as that underlying suspense contrasts with the ordinariness of the meal.

Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives is the story of Walter and Joanna Eberhart. They and their two children have just moved from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut. They settle in a bit, and at first, everything goes well enough. Then, Joanna’s new friend, Bobbie Markowe, begins to suspect that something is wrong in the town. Joanna doesn’t agree, and she’s unwilling anyway to make a move so soon after having moved to town. But as time goes by, she comes to believe that Bobbie was right, and that something dark is going on. Now, she herself is in very real danger. At one point, Walter invites a few of his friends over to the house, and Joanna agrees to play hostess. There’s a very tense scene in which she’s in the kitchen, and one of the guests joins her there. On the surface, it’s an everyday situation, where someone’s doing something in the kitchen, and chatting with another person. But there’s a lot of underlying tension, as Joanna’s trying to work out what’s going on in Stepford.

There’s another kitchen scene in Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, which takes place in 1950s California. Lora King has always been close to her brother, Bill. So, when he begins to date a former Hollywood seamstress’ assistant named Alice Steele, she’s naturally concerned that he might get hurt. Then, he marries Alice. Lora has her doubts, but she tries to be nice to her new sister-in-law, mostly for Bill’s sake. And Alice does seem to be fitting in among Bill’s friends. In fact, she’s quite the hostess. Slowly, though, Lora begins to learn little things that make her very uneasy. The more she discovers about Alice’s life, the more repulsed she is. At the same time, she’s drawn to it. Then, there’s a death, and Alice might be mixed up in it. Telling herself she’s protecting her brother, Lora starts to ask questions to find out what really happened. At one point in the novel, Alice is preparing for a get-together will some friends, and Lora’s in the kitchen, helping her. It’s a very ordinary-looking scene on the surface. Underneath, though, there’s a great deal of tension as Lora has become convinced that something is badly wrong.

And then there’s Wendy James’ The Mistake. In that novel, we meet Jodie Evans Garrow and her family. Her husband, Angus, is a successful attorney whose name has been brought up as the next mayor of Arding, New South Wales. She’s attractive, smart, and has two healthy children and a comfortable life. Everything’s going well for this family. Then, her daughter, Hannah, is involved in an accident, and is rushed to a Sydney hospital. It turns out to be the same hospital where, several years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another child, one she’s never mentioned to anyone. A nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie, and asks about the child. Jodie says she gave the baby up for adoption, but when the nurse checks into it, she finds no formal record of the adoption. Now, whispers start, and soon turn very ugly and very public. What happened to the baby? If she’s alive, where is she? If she’s dead, did Jodie have something to do with it? Before she knows it, Jodie becomes a social pariah. In the midst of all of this, she is invited to visit a local book club. Pleased at this sign of acceptance, Jodie accepts the invitation, and attends the book club meeting. On the surface, it’s an ordinary book club discussion. But the tension soon rises when Jodie discovers the reason she was invited. The group is discussing a book about the famous Lindy Chamberlain case, and they’ve drawn a parallel to Jodie’s situation. That underlying suspense contrasts with the surface-level peace of the book club.

And that’s the power that those ordinary scenes can have in crime fiction. They can contrast very effectively with underlying tension, and bring that tension into sharp focus. And that can add much to a novel.


*NOTE:  The title of this post is a line from Marc Robillard’s Blown Away.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ira Levin, Megan Abbott, Nicholas Blake, Wendy James

Sometimes It’s Better Not to Know*

If you’re a crime fiction fan, chances are good that you’re curious, and that you want answers. And that’s quite natural. Most humans have a certain amount of curiosity, and that serves us well. But, are there times when, as the saying goes, ignorance is bliss? Are there some things we’re better off not knowing?

It’s interesting to see how crime fiction treats that question. On the one hand, the genre is all about finding out answers and getting to the truth. On the other, sometimes that truth is so difficult that it really might be better not to know.

Agatha Christie address this question in several of her stories. For instance, in the short story Dead Man’s Mirror, Gervase Chevenix-Gore summons Hercule Poirot to his family home to help him deal with a delicate matter. Poirot is, as you can imagine, not exactly delighted with such treatment, but he is intrigued. So, he travels to Chevenix-Gore’s home. Shortly after he arrives, everyone gathers for dinner. But, by then, Chevenix-Gore is dead – shot in his study. On the surface, it looks very much like suicide. But there is good reason to believe that he would not have committed suicide. And Poirot soon finds evidence to suggest that he was murdered. As he slowly gets to the truth of the matter, Poirot discovers that there are several secrets perhaps best left alone. In fact, he leaves one of them alone himself.

Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die begins as mystery writer Frank Cairnes writes in his journal,

‘I am going to kill a man.’

He’s being perfectly literal, too. Six months ago, Cairnes’ beloved son, Martin ‘Martie’ died in a tragic hit-and-run incident. Devastated with grief, Cairnes has determined that he will find and kill the man responsible. So, he moves back to the town where he and Martie lived at the time of the tragedy and starts doing a little detective work. Before long, he establishes that the person who was driving the car that killed Martie was a man named George Rattery. Soon afterwards, he finds an ‘in’ to Rattery’s company, and gets an invitation for a visit. His plan is to take Rattery out on a boat and drown him. But Rattery has found Cairnes’ diary. He says that if anything happens to him, the police will get the diary, and Cairnes will be caught. For Cairnes’ part, he says that if the police get the diary, then they’ll know about Rattery’s role in Martie’s death. At a stalemate, the two men head back to shore. Later that day, Rattery dies of what turns out to be poison. Cairnes says that he is innocent. After all, why would he plan to poison a man whom he’d already been going to drown? And he asks poet and PI Nigel Strangeways to help clear his name. As the story goes on, it’s an interesting question whether it would have been better if Cairnes had never found out who the driver of that car was.

In Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal, Eva Wirenström-Berg and her husband, Henrik, have what seems like the perfect suburban life. Then, Eva discovers that Henrik has been unfaithful. Many people would argue that she has a right to know that. But for her, the news is truly devastating. She is determined that she will find out who the other woman is, and that decision spells disaster. When she learns who Henrik’s lover is, Eva plans revenge, but things don’t work out the way she wants. Gradually, things spin out of control in a way that they likely wouldn’t have if she’d never learned who the other woman was.

Pascal Garnier’s The Front Seat Passenger begins as Fabien Delorme discovers that his wife, Sylvie, has died in a car crash. He feels the loss, but their marriage had faded, so he doesn’t feel a really deep grief. Then, he is told that she wasn’t alone in the car. Apparently, she had a lover who also died in the crash. This upsets Delorme more than does the fact that Sylvie died, and he wants to know who this other man was. The police aren’t willing to tell him, but he finds out that the man’s name was Martial Arnoult, and that he left a widow, Martine. Delorme becomes obsessed with finding out more about her, and before he knows it, he’s caught in a web that spins out of control. Admittedly, if he hadn’t found out the name of Sylvie’s lover, it wouldn’t make for much of a story. But it’s hard not to think he would have been better off not knowing…

And then there’s Mick Herron’s Down Cemetery Road. Sarah Tucker and her husband, Mark, are entertaining some guests one evening when an explosion destroys a house not far from theirs. At first, it’s believed to be a gas main. But Sarah has questions about that. For one thing, the owners of the house, Thomas and Maddie Singleton, who were killed in the explosion, left a four-year-old daughter, Dinah. There’s been no sign of the child, and no evidence that she was hurt or killed. So, what’s happened to her? Sarah soon finds out, too, that Thomas Singleton had been listed as killed four years earlier in a military accident. So, why was he present on the night of the explosion? Sarah is especially concerned about Dinah, so she starts to ask questions. And the more she finds out, the more danger there is for her. In the end, Sarah learns some dark, ugly truths, as this case is far more than a tragic gas main accident. Some of that knowledge is very dangerous, too – enough to make one wonder just how much good it did her to learn what she learned.

And that’s the thing about curiosity. It’s a natural part of human thinking. But sometimes, you can’t help wondering whether some things are better left unknown…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Pale Divine’s The Fog.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Karin Alvtegen, Mick Herron, Nicholas Blake, Pascal Garnier