Despite sounding like a grief self-help book (and believe me a fair few pop up when you try to search for this on Amazon), The Morning After Death (1966) is the final novel by Nicholas Blake featuring his fictional detective Nigel Strangeways. I was a little timorous about doing a post on this book, having realised through reading other people’s blogs over the past few months how unpopular Nicholas Blake books are. Having now read the full set of books featuring Blake’s sleuth, Nigel Strangeways, I think on balance that books 2-5 are the strongest, with the quality noticeably dropping after book 7 and now having said this I feel like I ought to dive for cover…
Nigel Strangeways’ final outing takes place at Cabot University, near Boston, where he is staying with the Master of Hawthorne House whilst doing some research. Nigel quickly makes a small body of friends: Charles Reilly, a resident Irish poet, a young woman named Sukie, who is doing a PhD thesis on Emily Dickson and is in a relationship of sorts with Mark Alberg who teaches in the English faculty. There is also his brother Chester, who is an assistant senior tutor and teaches at the business school. A day trip out to see the birthplace of Emily Dickson shows the glimmer of tensions bubbling underneath the surface, but no one was prepared for the death of Josiah Alberg, who was Chester and Mark’s half-brother and a classical scholar at Cabot University and was found in a disused locker with a hole in his head when a Freshman midnight initiation ordeal turns sour.
Stories of past recriminations and buried painful moments are all brought to the surface, but it is Mark and John Tate who become the prime suspects, the former seeing Josiah as a rival to their father’s money and the latter having been expelled from the university for plagiarising Josiah, though he maintains it was the other way round. Even more incriminatingly both these men were placed as being around Josiah’s office at the time of murder, where he was killed. Nigel is reluctant to get involved and for a while he takes a backseat in the investigation led by Lieutenant Brady, however this changes as ‘even the smallest mystery had about as much chance of survival where Nigel Strangeways was present as an ant in a cage of anteaters.’
A well-seasoned confidant, Nigel quickly receives information from various suspects and scores some early victories over the police, leading Sukie to say that
‘He’s the Wizard of Oz. He ought to be suppressed. It’s those hypnotic X-ray eyes.’
However, for me the investigation was not up to the standard shown in Nigel’s early exploits such as in Thou Shell of Death (1936), There’s Trouble Brewing (1937) and The Beast Must Die (1938), although there is some alibi breaking which Freeman Wills Crofts’ Inspector French would be proud of. The reason for this investigation not being as good in my opinion is due to the lack of tangible clues for the reader, meaning that when Nigel fears another death and takes secret steps to prevent it, the reader is left rather in the dark. Events take a dramatic turn though when the killer is revealed to the reader, a killer who decides to commit one more murder… that of Nigel… My sympathy is rather lacking for Nigel though, firstly because if he doesn’t want to people having murderous intentions towards him, he shouldn’t give them a letter offering them the opportunity to confess to the police or kill themselves. Additionally, weirdly in the final sequence which is interwoven with thoughts from the killer, I started feeling sorry for them, though why I did is hard to articulate without giving any spoilers.
But my biggest reason for not caring about Nigel in this book is to do with how he has radically changed in this book. I could accept that after 16 books which begin with him in his 20s he is going to be much older now, but what I couldn’t excuse was the brain transplant he had which made him dismissive of women and act very creepy with them. This culminates in the short scene where Sukie who has an older man complex invites Nigel to have sex with her. Apart from the fact this type of scene is completely incongruous with the series so far, where women have been shown more positively such as the two main women in Nigel’s life having successful careers as an explorer and sculptor respectively, but in accepting Sukie’s offer Nigel comfortably cheats on his partner. The implied age difference alone makes this a weird episode in the book (which adds nothing to the plot) but even worse it doesn’t remotely fit with Nigel as a character. Overall I think this part of the book annoyed me more than it should have done because after 15 books my expectations of Nigel was that he was a good and decent guy on the whole and I guess I also didn’t want the series to end with Nigel being quite so seamy. There are other moments in the book where gender stereotypes rear their ugly head such was with Mark who after marking an essay comments:
‘Well, that’s that… a beautiful ardent girl. And the sooner she becomes a wife and mother, and abandons academic hopes, the happier we shall be.’
Obviously the essay may have poor but I don’t think the character would have made a similarly scathing remark if the student had been a man.
Something which did surprise me was the way the issue of race and civil rights was mixed into the story with characters criticising the KKK and the attitudes of those in the South concerning race. In conjunction with this, a key idea which many characters voiced was a fear that the police are corrupt or violent. However, this theme was rather wasted in the book as it didn’t connect to the investigation and nor are the criticisms of the police even remotely justified. I felt like Blake rather shoehorned the idea in.
In the story, detective fiction is described as ‘not an art form… [but] an entertainment… [with] its chief virtue l[ying] in its consistent flouting of reality.’ As to last part of the description I think many readers and writers of crime fiction would disagree and I would be one of those people. However, looking at The Morning After Death, I don’t think it is entertaining, though it does manage to flout reader expectations of Nigel. I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone, regardless of whether they are new or old readers of Blake’s books. Despite this being a poor finish to the series, I still maintain that the earlier books are good, such The Smiler with the Knife (1939), due to their novelty elements, well clued plots and a non-creepy Nigel.