Invisible Ink: No 111 - Nicholas Blake

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The Independent Culture

I have a tenuous connection to this author, having gone to school with Daniel Day-Lewis, whose father was our Poet Laureate.

However, before Cecil Day-Lewis reached these heights, he was a cash-strapped teacher who wrote crime novels initially to pay for some roof repairs. He regarded mysteries as a perfectly acceptable literary form, and chose another identity, Nicholas Blake, to keep the twin careers of academic and novelist on separate tracks.

Blake wrote Golden Age-style mysteries that were peppered with literary allusions, and used the classic devices of Agatha Christie and Margery Allingham. For his first outing, A Question of Proof, published in 1935, he created the detective hero Nigel Strangeways (named after the Manchester prison), who was modelled on the writer W H Auden. In the second, Thou Shell Of Death, the snowed-in country-house suspects take revenge in an updated Jacobean tragedy that is also a pitch-perfect recreation of the Christie manner, with the added advantage that Day-Lewis was a smoother prose stylist – not that he shows any of his poetic leanings in these early tales. I often wonder whether Christie won this war of attrition by her sheer volume of work, gradually drowning out her rivals. In Christie's frozen world nothing ever changed, nor were any details ever added to the characters of Poirot and Miss Marple, whereas Blake gradually aged his detective and allowed him to react to 20th-century events.

So Strangeways loses his wife in the Blitz, takes a mistress, leads a full personal life, and also enjoys the unquestioning trust of Scotland Yard, for whom he takes on problematic cases. There are 16 Strangeways novels, and the best of them are modelled on real-life incidents, in particular The Beast Must Die (1938) in which a father tracks down the hit-and-run driver who killed his child. In addition to his many poetry books there are books for children and four stand-alone novels.

Day-Lewis was the son of a priest, and was born in Ireland in 1904, then raised in London. His second marriage was to Jill Balcon, the daughter of the British movie mogul Michael Balcon. He also had a brief affair with Elizabeth Jane Howard (see columns passim) who later married Kingsley Amis. While I fight the urge to produce a Venn diagram of all these intersecting lives, I'll note that although the Strangeways books disappeared from print, they are now returning to shelves in new editions.