A Question of Proof

Poet’s promising debut detective novel

The Vintage edition of A Question of Proof
The Vintage edition of
A Question of Proof
Nicholas Blake’s first Nigel Strangeways Mystery, A Question of Proof, published in 1935, is a cleverly written story set in a public school for boys with a complex plot that keeps the reader guessing right till the end.

It is the annual sports day at Sudely Hall on a glorious summer’s day and all the parents and children are looking forward to the races. But by the end of the afternoon the police have to be called when the headmaster’s obnoxious nephew is found in a haystack having been strangled.

The English master, Michael Evans, who is in love with the headmaster’s beautiful young wife, soon finds himself the police’s main suspect for the murder and so he calls in Nigel Strangeways, an old friend from university who has become an amateur detective, to investigate the case ‘on behalf of the school’.

The author of A Question of Proof was the poet Cecil Day-Lewis, who eventually became Poet Laureate. At the age of 31 he turned to crime writing to supplement his income from poetry, using the pseudonym Nicholas Blake.

He was hailed by the reviewers as a master of detective fiction and went on to produce another 15 Nigel Strangeways Mysteries as well as four detective novels and some short stories that don’t feature his series character.

Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, alias novelist Nicholas Blake
Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis,
alias novelist Nicholas Blake
I was surprised when I began reading A Question of Proof that an omniscient point of view is used at the start to show the reader round the school and introduce the main characters among the masters and the boys.

The spotlight is on the young good-looking Evans, who is preoccupied with arranging a secret assignation with Hero, the wife of the Rev Percival Vale, the headmaster.

But once Nigel Strangeways arrives, the story is mostly told from his point of view. He joins forces with the investigating officer, Superintendent Armstrong, to try to solve the crime. Armstrong’s willing cooperation is explained by the fact that Strangeways is a nephew to the Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard.

Cecil Day-Lewis, aka Nicholas Blake, describes the environment of a public school for boys brilliantly, showing the bickering between the masters and the factions among the boys. Strangeways is received well by masters and boys alike and quickly reveals his talent for blending in with any company, along with displaying his own small eccentricities, such as drinking large quantities of tea.

In order to solve the crime, he has to join the Black Spot gang and pass the initiation rituals imposed by the members, but he then has the support of a small group of boys who open up about what they know and help him with his investigation. Interestingly, he uses psychology to solve the crime, rather than concentrating on the most obvious suspects in the manner of the police. It is not surprising that Strangeways was a fictional detective who was going to live on for another 30 years.

All the Nigel Strangeways Mysteries have now been republished by Vintage Books.

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Nicholas Blake, detective novelist

Former Poet Laureate's other identity

Cecil Day-Lewis adopted Nicholas Blake as a pseudonym
Cecil Day-Lewis adopted Nicholas
Blake as a pseudonym
Crime writer Nicholas Blake wrote 20 highly regarded detective novels, 15 of them featuring his likeable amateur sleuth Nigel Strangeways.

Many novelists would be happy with achieving this much during their lifetime, but for Nicholas Blake, it was only part of his story.

For Blake was actually the poet, professor and publisher Cecil Day-Lewis - born on this day in 1904 in Ireland - who was Poet Laureate from 1968 until his death in 1972.

In 1935 Day-Lewis decided to increase his income from poetry by trying his hand at writing a detective novel.

His first novel, A Question of Proof, which he published under his pseudonym Nicholas Blake, introduced Nigel Strangeways, an amateur investigator and gentleman detective who, as the nephew of an assistant commissioner at Scotland Yard, had access to official crime investigation resources.

From the mid 1930s onwards Day-Lewis was able to earn a living by writing as Nicholas Blake while continuing to write poetry, working in publishing and lecturing at Cambridge University.

The Vintage edition of
A Question of Proof
His novel Minute for Murder is set against the background of his experience of working for the Ministry of Information during the Second World War and his novel Head of a Traveller has a principal character who is a well-known poet suffering from writer’s block, whose best poetry writing days are long behind him.

Critics regard his 1938 novel, The Beast Must Die, as perhaps his best work because it skilfully combines a twisting and intriguing narrative with a subtle study of the nature of private and public morality.

Day-Lewis died in 1972 at the home of his friends Kingsley Amis and Elizabeth Jane Howard.  He left four children by two marriages, including the actor, Sir Daniel Day-Lewis, who donated his father's archive to the Bodleian Library.

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Gladys Mitchell’s stunning debut

Crime writer challenged the conventions of the genre in first novel

The Vintage Books edition of Speedy Death
The Vintage Books
edition of Speedy Death
Prolific detective fiction writer Gladys Mitchell, who was born on this day in 1901, was judged by reviewers to be an outstanding novelist right from the start of her career.

She got off the mark quickly in 1929 with Speedy Death, her first novel featuring her amateur sleuth, Mrs Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, and she never looked back.

She wrote a further 66 crime novels featuring Mrs Bradley and built up a large and loyal following for her eccentric but brilliant detective.

Gladys was born in Cowley in Oxfordshire. She graduated in history from University College, London and embarked on a career as a teacher.

She wrote at least one detective novel a year while working and was an early member of the Detection Club along with Agatha Christie, G K Chesterton and Dorothy L Sayers.

Gladys Mitchell wrote 67 Mrs Bradley mysteries
Gladys Mitchell wrote 67
Mrs Bradley mysteries
Gladys studied the works of Sigmund Freud and made her series detective, Mrs Bradley, a distinguished psychoanalyst. She also developed an interest in witchcraft, which features in some of her novels.

In 1961, Gladys retired from teaching but she continued to write detective novels at her home in Dorset. She received the Crime Writers’ Association Silver Dagger in 1976.

Gladys died in 1983 and her last Mrs Bradley mystery was published in 1984.

In Speedy Death, Mrs Bradley is a guest at a country house party. When one of the guests, Mountjoy, a legendary explorer, is found drowned in the bath Mrs Bradley is convinced it is a case of murder and she joins forces with another house guest, a scientist, to try to solve the crime. The first thing that marks this book out from other Golden Age mystery novels is the scene when the naked body is discovered in the bath and the victim, who everybody thought was a man, is revealed to be a woman.

Diana Rigg played Mrs Bradley in the BBC TV series
Diana Rigg played Mrs Bradley
in the BBC TV series
Mrs Bradley is described as birdlike without being pretty. She has claw-like hands, yellowish skin, a cynical smirk and a sinister laugh. However, she manages to inspire loyalty and respect from young and old alike when she turns her powerful intellect to solving the crime.

Gladys also turns the conventions of the cosy crime genre on its head in Speedy Death with a surprising twist to the plot near the end. I would recommend it to crime fiction fans as well worth reading for that alone.

The BBC screened a five-episode series entitles The Mrs Bradley Mysteries between 1998 and 2000 featuring Diana Rigg in the title role. The storyline of the first episode was based on Speedy Death.

Speedy Death was republished by Vintage Books in 2014.

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The Cask by Freeman Wills Crofts

The story of a complex police investigation full of surprises

The story starts with a consignment of French wines unloaded at the docks in London
The story starts with a consignment of French
wines unloaded at the docks in London
Although it was his first novel, The Cask, by Freeman Wills Crofts, has been judged to be one of his most ambitious and intricately plotted.

The action takes place in London and Paris, there are three different sets of investigators and, according to the author himself, the novel was about 40,000 words too long.

But despite being published more than a century ago, The Cask is as compelling and fast moving as many contemporary novels and I think it is still well worth reading.

The story begins when a consignment of French wines is unloaded from a steamship at the docks in London. One of the casks is slightly damaged during the process, so the shipping clerk, who is overseeing the unloading, looks inside it. He finds that it doesn’t contain wine after all, but gold sovereigns. He then makes a gruesome discovery as he searches amongst the sawdust in which the sovereigns are packed.

He consults his superior and they decide to go to the police, but when they return to the docks they find the cask and its contents have gone.

The investigation takes the story's detective, Inspector Burnley, to Paris
The investigation takes the story's detective,
Inspector Burnley, to Paris
Inspector Burnley of Scotland Yard is put on the case and he manages to track down the cask. When it is unpacked, the police find they are dealing with a murder investigation.

Burnley’s enquiries take him to Paris, from where the cask was dispatched, and he pursues his investigation with the help of Inspector Lefarge, a detective from the Sûreté.

After exhaustive enquiries, the case becomes clearer and a Frenchman living in  London, Leon Felix, is arrested.

The case is then taken up by the solicitor of the accused, John Clifford, and the King’s Counsel he instructs, Lucius Heppenstall. They meet to prepare a defence for their client and review the evidence against Felix.

They decide that if their client is innocent he must have been the victim of a cunning plot to implicate him. Their planned course of action is to test the evidence and they decide to employ a team of private detectives to travel to Paris and review the work of Scotland Yard and the Sûreté.

The Cask is available as a
Collins Crime Club title

Georges La Touche, who is considered the smartest private detective in London, is dispatched to Paris with some of his men and he painstakingly tests all the evidence the police have found, working tirelessly to try to break the alibis of the people involved

In a dramatic denouement he confronts the person who has masterminded the whole plot against Felix.

The alibis depend on train times, as do many of the alibis of the characters in later novels by Crofts, who worked for the railways as a civil engineer until he retired to write full time.

In 1946, Crofts wrote a Foreword for a new edition of The Cask, describing how he came up with the idea for the story.

When he started writing the novel in about 1912 he had been off work for a lengthy period due to an illness and was bored and wanted something to do. He says he started by writing down the most absurd and improbable things he could think of. He read the first chapter of The Cask to his wife and she encouraged him to complete the book.

Looking back, he says the story could probably have been told in about 80,000 words instead of 120,000. Crofts went on to write another 30 novels, developing a much more systematic way of plotting and writing along the way.

However, more than a century after The Cask was first published, it continues to intrigue and entertain new readers.

I found it to be well written, exciting and constantly surprising, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys detective fiction.

The novels of Freeman Wills Crofts are still in print, even though the author died more than 60 years ago.

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(Paris picture by Sadnos via Pixabay)



Remembering Freeman Wills Crofts

Writer employed the intricacies of the railway timetable for his alibis

Freeman Wills Croft worked in railways for 33 years before becoming a full-time writer
Freeman Wills Croft worked in railways for
33 years before becoming a full-time writer
The prolific Irish detective fiction writer Freeman Wills Crofts, who died 64 years ago today, was outshone by other famous names from the Golden Age but was nonetheless highly regarded by contemporaries such as Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler and many of his books are still in print.

He wrote more than 30 novels, about 100 short stories, stage and radio plays and some works of non-fiction.

A railway engineer by training, Crofts introduced railway themes into many of his stories and the apparently unbreakable alibis of his characters often featured the intricacies of railway timetables.

He is best remembered for his series detective, Inspector Joseph French, although the character wasn’t introduced until Crofts wrote his fifth book.

His first novel, The Cask, published in 1920, was republished last year to mark its 100th anniversary by Collins Crime Club.

Crofts was born in Dublin in 1879. His father, who was an army doctor, died before his birth. His mother remarried later to a Vicar in County Down and Crofts was brought up at the Vicarage in Gilford, County Down.

The Collins Crime Club edition of The Cask
The Collins Crime Club
edition of The Cask
When he was 17 he was apprenticed to his uncle who worked at the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway and he continued to work in railways for the next 33 years.

He wrote The Cask after a long absence from work because of illness. He started writing to help him pass the time and it established him as a new master of detective fiction.

In an introduction to the centenary edition of The Cask, Collins reprinted some words Crofts wrote in 1946 about how he began writing the story. He says: ‘I became so bored that I didn’t know what to do and to try to fill the time I asked for a pencil and a few sheets of notepaper. I began to write down what seemed the most absurd and improbable things I could think of.’ When he had finished the first chapter of The Cask he read it to his wife and her enthusiastic approval encouraged him to carry on with the book until he was well enough to return to work.

He continued to write steadily, producing a book almost every year for 30 years as well as numerous short stories.

Trains and timetables featured in a number of books by Freeman Wills Crofts
Trains and timetables featured in a number
of books by Freeman Wills Crofts
In 1929 he gave up his railway career to become a full-time writer and settled in the village of Blackheath near Guildford in Surrey.

He was a member of the Detection Club with Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers and was also elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

Raymond Chandler described Crofts as ‘the soundest builder of them all when he doesn’t get too fancy.’ Crime writing experts have said his concentration on the mechanics of detection made him the forerunner of the police procedural school of crime fiction.

Freeman Wills Crofts died on 11 April, 1957 in Worthing, West Sussex.

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The Murders in the Rue Morgue

Edgar Allan Poe invented the fictional detective in April 1841

The first detective story by the American writer Edgar Allan Poe, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, was published in a magazine 180 years ago this month.

Although Poe himself referred to it as one of his ‘tales of ratiocination’, the work has since been hailed as the first modern detective story.

The first story about amateur
sleuth C Auguste Dupin
Poe’s fictional amateur detective, C Auguste Dupin, solves the savage murder of two women living in a house in the Rue Morgue in Paris, demonstrating many of the traits which were to become literary conventions in stories about subsequent fictional detectives, such as Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot.

The creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, praised Dupin as ‘the best detective in fiction’.

The murders in Poe’s first detective story appear to have been committed in a locked room on the fourth floor of an otherwise uninhabited house. Neighbours hearing the agonised screams of the women victims break into the house, but find only two dead bodies and no other person anywhere in the property.

For the very first time, the reader is told that the local police are completely baffled.

The story begins with the unnamed narrator of the story first meeting Dupin when they are both trying to obtain the same rare book.

The two men become friends and decide to share a rented property together in Paris.

The narrator is constantly amazed by Dupin’s brilliance and powers of deduction. In one scene, Dupin is able to work out what his friend is thinking and answer him before he has even asked a question.

When the two men read about the murders in the newspaper, Dupin is immediately interested and gets permission from the police to visit the house and assess the crime scene in the locked room.

From what Dupin observes there he is able to work out what has happened and who is responsible for the murders. He convinces the police to release the man they have mistakenly arrested and finally explains to the narrator how he has solved the mystery from the clues he observed at the crime scene.

Poe wrote his first detective story at the age of 32 and was paid $56 for the publication rights by Graham’s Magazine, based in Philadelphia. It appeared in the April 1841 edition and became the prototype for many future stories featuring fictional detectives.

Poe's narrator technique was taken up by Conan Doyle. His Dr Watson narrated the circumstances surrounding the cases solved by Sherlock Holmes and marvelled at the amazing powers of deduction of the friend with whom he shared rented rooms. The first story, A Study in Scarlet, was published in 1887.

Captain Hastings began narrating stories about the cases solved by Hercule Poirot in The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie, published in 1920.

There were just three Dupin short stories, but the Mystery Writers of America still honour Edgar Allan Poe annually by presenting the Edgar Award for distinguished work in the mystery genre.

Detective novelist Dorothy L Sayers has described the three Dupin stories as ‘almost a complete manual of detective theory and practice.’

The Murders in the Rue Morgue and the two other Dupin stories were republished in a single volume by Vintage Classics in 2009. 

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