The Widow’s Cruise (1959) by Nicholas Blake

‘The only thing I have against cruise life is that it’s turning us all into busybodies and gossips.’

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Body of Water

the-widows-cruise

For Rich’s Crimes of the Century Challenge this month, with the chosen year of 1959, I have gone for a familiar author and a past read. By and large I have often preferred Blake’s earlier novels, finding the later ones tended to sparkle less or were quite frankly a bit disturbing. Being the 13th out of 14 Strangeways mysteries I was wondering what sort of read this was going to be. Suffice to say it was actually much better than I remembered.

The story commences with Nigel and his partner/ girlfriend, Clare Massinger, booking themselves on to a cruise around the Greek islands. Like many holiday based mysteries there is an assortment of holidaymaker characters, but the two which cause the greatest consternation are the widowed Melissa Blaydon and her sister Ianthe Ambrose, the latter of whom is a classics school teacher who has had a nervous breakdown. Whilst Blaydon attracts men like moths to a lamp (especially cruise manager Nikolaides), Ambrose makes a much less positive impression, going so far as creating enemies. For instance there is Faith, an ex-pupil of Ambrose’s on the same boat and it seems Ambrose played an instrumental role in getting her expelled, an action which led to her suffering from a bout of brain fever. This of course makes Ambrose decidedly unpopular with Faith’s brother. Ambrose is also hugely disliked by one of the boat’s guest speakers, Jeremey Street, who believes her strong censor of his work has adversely affected his sales as a writer who popularises Greek literature. Two other crucial guests on the boat are Ivor Bentinck-Jones, who seems keen to be the life and soul of the party, but who may be up to something more nefarious and Primrose Chalmer, whose is accompanied by her analyst parents. True to stereotype Primrose has been brought up in a more alternative way and is very intelligent for her age and keen to use her knowledge of psychology on the other guests, taking extensive notes in her notebook which she keeps in a sporran.

Image result for 1950s greek cruise

SS Stella Maris – Greek Vintage Postcard

As the cruise progresses the tension within the group, which Strangeways terms as ‘explosive material’ reaches a crescendo and in the space of a matter of hours there is a dead body and a mysterious disappearance. Strangeways dives straight into an investigation and as the boat nears Athens, a final gathering of the suspects reveals the answer to the mystery.

Overall Thoughts

As I said earlier this was a story where a re-read has actually improved my opinion of it. Firstly I felt the characters were strong for many reasons. Some characters such as the Bishop’s wife are entertaining for their incisive and dry comments, though she does make the trope of characters confiding in an older harmless woman sound a bit like a hairball: ‘I am gossiped to. It all comes of looking so fat and comfy and normal. I’m a Mum figure – everyone coughs it up in my lap.’ I also found the image of her as a ‘vivacious roly-poly,’ quite an amusing one. I also enjoyed Primrose as a character. She may be a bit precocious but there was something also quite endearing about her.

Related image

Secondly there are the two sisters, Blaydon and Ambrose, who are at the centre of mystery and Blake does a good job of differentiating them concisely and clearly at the start of the book. On the one hand Blaydon is described as being:

‘of middle height, her graceful carriage minimising a certain stockiness of figure, with high cheekbones and charming hollows beneath them, and a delicate brown complexion that, when she came closer, showed itself as a triumph of cosmetic art, this woman had that air of sexual awareness which tells its own story. She wore a lemon-coloured linen suit and a wide white straw hat.’

Whilst on the other hand Ambrose:

‘though of the same height, seemed dumpy in comparison. She wore a puce-coloured jumper, which emphasised the muddiness of her skin, a rumpled tweed skirt, and serviceable shoes. The general effect of a badly done-up parcel was heightened by untidy hair, a shambling gait, and restless, spasmodic gestures.’

I think it is the ‘badly done-up parcel’ image which struck me the most. The sisters are both hard to pin down as there is a nervous and tense façade in Ambrose, yet underneath there is a secret attentiveness and intelligence. Equally Blaydon has the manner of being ‘no more than a spoiled, silly, selfish woman of the world,’ yet conversely there is a kinder side to her towards her sister, taking her on a holiday which is of little interest to her. Finally with the characters their relationships are not all straight forward such as Faith’s interest in Street. A reader can quickly assume it is nothing more than a schoolgirl crush but it actually turns out to be something much more complex.

Blake captures the cruise milieu well and like my post’s header quote, the boat is full of The Widow's Cruisepeople who are curious about others to a great degree, although this is exhibited in different ways and for different purposes. This curiosity is given a more sinister edge when the narrator writes that

‘Nigel’s passionate curiosity about human beings was accompanied by a deep distrust of persons who, outside their professional capacities, manifested the same curiosity. Experience had taught him that such curiosity is seldom disinterested.’

In this second read something which struck me much more forcibly this time round was the level of cluing in the mystery, even including a list of questions and scraps of information that Strangeways tabulates half way through the investigation. In addition I think this novel produces an enjoyable variation on a twist or plot device that Christie used a few times in her own work. I think my main qualm with the book was how the solution is finally delivered, as it felt a bit overdrawn and I think considering the clues available it seems less satisfying to catch the guilty by tricking them into betraying themselves. Furthermore after the solution is finished the book itself takes a while to wrap up and I think this makes the book finish with a much slower pace.

Rating: 4/5

See also:
A Question of Proof (1935)

The Morning After Death (1966)

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About armchairreviewer

Qualified English teacher, with a passion for literature and crime fiction. On a random note I also own pygmy goats and chickens with afros (it doesn't get any cooler than that).
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9 Responses to The Widow’s Cruise (1959) by Nicholas Blake

  1. JJ says:

    Given my difficultues with Blake, this was the one that someone (I forget who) said was the one to try and have my perspective on his detective novels reinvigorated. So it’s great to hear that you’ve enjoyed it more after remembering it being less than brilliant. Of course, now it’s just a matter of when I get round to it myself.

    Not fond of an overlong ending, though. I mean, Clyde Clason appears to have a habit of going “Here’s the killer and here’s why, The End” which is a bit abrupt, but hanging around after all the questions are answered is rather like being he last people who refuse to leave a party — fine if you’ve been enjoying yourself uo to that point, but then it just gets bloody ridiculous…!

    Liked by 1 person

    • The first 5 books by Blake are probably his best but this was still a good read. From around page 150 odd until the end is about 30 odd pages which covers the solution and the ending. Doesn’t sound much but made to feel that way in the writing.

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      • JJ says:

        Oh, well if Blake’s first five are the best I should probably steer clear, as the first three really did not work for me…! Though at least this is one is fairly short (unless it fell prey to 1970s Tiny Font Syndrome); I’ll wait until I have a good head of steam with a run of excellent books behind me (also, there is TBR to be reduced) and thenconsider taking a run at it. Need something to do in my old age, after all…

        Liked by 1 person

      • How big is your TBR pile these days? And no I don’t think the font was particularly small. Blake might just not be the author for you, as I don’t think they are ever particularly how-dunnits and his nod to impossible crime was his second book, which didn’t work for you.

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  2. I read this just a few months ago and thought it a pleasant read – I finished it in one sitting – but very easily solved by the reader. To me it’s one of those 50s-60s books that dabble in the psychological side of murder investigations but doesn’t quite bring it off convincingly.

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  3. jasonhalf says:

    Hi Kate – I greatly enjoyed reading your review; like nearly all of the Blakes, it’s been about a decade and a half since I first encountered this title, and I have been meaning to dig out a few from behind the double-rowed bookshelves and try them again. The Widow’s Cruise I remember enjoying, but that’s the extent of my memory, and your response made me think I should revisit it. More impressionable books of his for me were The Beast Must Die, The Smiler with a Knife (I rather enjoyed the foray into action; The Whisper in the Gloom held up less well), and Minute for Murder – I do like the idea of starting with six suspects, then limiting it to three, then two, until finally…

    Thanks again! Always a pleasure to read your reviews.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad you enjoyed the review. I too enjoyed the TSWTK and TBMD. My memories tend to be best with the first 5 or so mysteries. After that I can’t really remember much of the later ones if anything. I think the plots of his earlier books were a bit more striking.

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  4. Pingback: ‘The admiration that existed for all things American’: 1959 books | Past Offences: Classic crime, thrillers and mystery book reviews

  5. Pingback: Book of the Month: January 2017 | crossexaminingcrime

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