Classic Crime

Nicholas Blake

Nicholas Blake is the pseudonym for C. Day Lewis CBE, who was born in 1904 in County Laois, Ireland. After his mother died in 1906, he was brought up in London by his father and aunt, spending summer holidays with relatives in Wexford. Day-Lewis was educated at Sherborne School and Wadham College, Oxford.

Blake initially worked as a teacher to supplement his poetry writing and he published his first Nigel Strangeways novel in 1935. During the Second World War he worked as a Publications Editor for the Ministry of Information which experience he used for his Strangeways novel, ‘Minute for Murder’. After the war and no longer being needed by his department, Day-Lewis went on to work as an editor and director for the publishing house, Chatto and Windus.

Day-Lewis married his second wife, the actress Jill Balcon, in 1951. He had four children, two from either marriage, one of whom is the actor Daniel Day-Lewis.

Day-Lewis had an illustrious career both as an academic and as a literary figure, producing many collections of poetry, critical works, translations and novels under his own name. Day-Lewis passed away at the Hertfordshire home of the novelists, Kingsley Amis and Elizabeth Jane Howard. A great admirer of Thomas Hardy, Day-Lewis was buried as near as possible to this great writer in Stinsford parish church. Day-Lewis was the Poet Laureate from 1968 until his death in 1972, aged sixty-eight.

Review: A Question of Proof

‘A Question of Proof’ is the first novel written by the poet laureate, Cecil Day-Lewis under the pseudonym, Nicholas Blake. You can tell from the numerous references to poetry and the classics, especially the Greek classics that Day-Lewis endeavoured to inject these classic crime novels with an amount of literary influence. (I advise you to have your dictionary at the ready!) The novel is also liberally sprinkled with quotes from the great Bard himself. What I enjoyed with Blake is that he is very good at setting the scene and conveying to the reader a deep sense of place. Day-Lewis was himself educated at Sherborne School so I imagine he drew a lot of his experiences from that and put them in this novel as he describes the school, the teachers and the pupil’s antics with such precision.

As for Strangeways himself, the author too gave him leanings towards theatricality, as his old school mate, Evans explains: ‘And he can’t sleep unless he has an enormous weight on his bed. If you don’t give him enough blankets for three, you’ll find that he has torn the carpets up or the curtains down.’ and ‘you must have water perpetually on the boil, he drinks tea at all hours of the day’. And Strangeways does get through quite a quantity of tea before he finally arrives at the right solution. It may not be as strong as Holmes’ cocaine, but obviously tea is Strangeways’ drug of choice.

As with most of the Classic Crime writers of this era, you can dip in to any book and not find that you have missed anything previously. There is no concrete ‘time line’ or ‘history’. All the cases are separate. I enjoyed this novel and it is always a cause for celebration to find a novelist who has been out of print for so many years.

Blake/Day-Lewis did go on to write some cracking novels that have become classics in their own right: ‘The Beast Must Die’ and ‘Malice in Wonderland’ are both particularly well-known and respected. But for many readers like me it is always a pleasure to start at the beginning and (despite the rest of the series being only available either ‘print on demand’ or in e-book format after the fourth Strangeways novel), I have to say the four books Vintage have released have the most spectacular and eye-catching covers and Vintage is to be applauded for re-introducing this author to a brand new audience. I am sure that Nigel Strangeways with his bizarre habits will prove a hit with a new generation of crime readers.

Reviewed by: C.S.

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