Today is the Tuesday Night Bloggers’ final look at children in crime from child victims and sleuths to killers. It has been an interesting month collecting the posts and I have learnt a lot about authors I have not heard of and those which are firm favourites. If you have a post that fits the topic or know a blogger who does add a link into the comments section below and I’ll add it to the list.
In case you have missed some of this month’s posts here are links to the past three weeks:
And here are this week’s posts. Late entries will be added as and when they arrive:
Bev at My Readers’ Block: More Sayers and Children
Helen Szamuely at Your Freedom and Ours: Tuesday Night Bloggers: Children as Detectives
Moira at Clothes in Books: Tuesday Night Club: The Curious Case of the Missing Children
For my own contribution this week I am returning to Nicholas Blake’s A Question of Proof (1935), which is the debut appearance of his serial sleuth Nigel Strangeways. Murder turns up at the end of a school sports day, with the headmaster’s nephew, Wemyss being found strangled to death in a nearby hay stack, a location which is particularly damning for Michael Evans, one of the school masters and the headmaster’s wife, Hero, as their canoodling in the haystack is decidedly within the time limits for when the murder was supposed to have been committed. Superintendent Armstrong certainly suspects them a lot and accordingly Evans sends a message to an old school friend… you’ve guessed it, Nigel Strangeways, an amateur sleuth who is also happens to be the nephew of Scotland Yard’s Assistant Commissioner.
As Strangeways begins to investigate, it seems that more than one person may have had a motive for killing Wemyss, with their being money to gain from his death and also the assurance of a secret kept hidden and feelings of revengeful gratification. With help from the school’s Black Spot society, Strangeways soon tracks down the killer, yet as the title of the story suggests it is a question of proving it.
From the very first page, Blake gives his story a self-conscious air or a feeling of artifice, which I think works well. It is more apparent at the beginning as he introduces the reader to the setting and characters and then it appropriately diminishes as the plot gets underway. There is a feeling of the story being a theatrical piece with the phrases ‘enter severally,’ ‘dramatis personae,’ ‘incidental music’ and ‘soliloquy’ littering the opening chapter. What I also enjoyed about this opening style is that it is not just there for artistic purposes but it is also there to provide information, which the reader is meant to deduce. This purpose comes across overtly when Blake writes that ‘from which soliloquy the observant reader will deduce that Michael Evans…,’ yet I have the feeling that there are other moments we are also supposed to be picking up on. The self-conscious style can also be amusing and the characters themselves indulge in a little metafiction when one of the schoolmasters says, ‘it’s only in school stories that the staff are always assaulting each other with umbrellas and living in perpetual welter of bad blood.’
On my blog the only other Blake novel I have reviewed is The Morning After Death (1966) and unfortunately this is not Blake or Nigel at their best, so I think I enjoyed this book even more because firstly Blake’s earlier books are his best books and also Nigel is a far more endearing and likeable character. In this his debut appearance he comes across as quite quirky, but Blake over the next few books easily reduces these. For instance one of his quirks is that ‘he drinks tea at all hours of the day,’ whilst another is that ‘he can’t sleep unless he has an enormous weight on his bed.’ Physically he also sounds a little odd as when he first appears in the story, (about a third of the way through), he is said to have ‘advanced towards them with rather ostrich-like strides…’ Additionally like many a fictional sleuth he has a way of reading others like a ‘human microscope’ and he also handles children well, neither being dismissive nor patronising. This is important in this story as a lot of his evidence comes from the pupils of the school.
One of the strengths of this story is that events are narrated from different people’s point of views, including the pupils, as this made the narrative more engaging. I also found it interesting that at times the pupils seem to be trying to appropriate adult mannerisms, whilst some of the schoolmasters conversely seem to be reverting back to childish ones, as the murder case progresses. As a bit of a book fanatic a passage concerning the books owned by one of the schoolmasters caught my attention:
‘The books too… what an incredibly miscellaneous collection! Novels representative of the whole possible gamut of taste, thereby betraying the complete absence of it in Sims… the bookcase was a museum of false starts and broken hopes. It filled Nigel with pity. He felt as if he was about to vivisect a lost dog.’
It was a passage which intrigued me, making me think of what my own bookshelves would say of me, but I was also reminded of my own habit of browsing other people’s bookshelves. I think the only major weakness in this story is how the killer is found out and the motivation behind the murder. In terms of the former it does hang together, but a more experienced writer would have done things differently perhaps and as to the second issue I just felt the motivation was a bit stereotyped. However, these two weaknesses don’t make this bad read and the book does show Blake having a lot of promise as a crime writer, as the crime itself is cleverly done.