The Smiler with the Knife (1939) by Nicholas Blake

Whilst my number of posts has been somewhat below average this October, I am still keeping on track with the goal of re-reading two books off my Re-Read List a month. I’ve not reviewed Blake much on the blog, mainly because I read nearly all of his work pre-blog. Nigel Strangeways is his series sleuth and for me the first 6-7 books are the best. The quality of the both the books and the series sleuth dip somewhat after this point, with Strangeways’ final volley into sleuthing becoming highly disturbing and generally dire. Given that this is early Blake, we have the more overt literary allusions in the title itself, which comes from The Knight’s Tale by Chaucer and the chapter headings within this book generally nod towards The Canterbury Tales, with their focus on specific people.

This tale begins with Nigel and his explorer wife Georgia living in rural England, with the latter pondering over her lack of restlessness for further travel. Yet it just so happens that Georgia’s next adventure will be much closer to home, beginning with the discovery of a locket in their hedge. This initial discovery rapidly transforms into the uncovering of a fascist type plot to overthrow the current government. Written like that it seems somewhat implausible, but I did not wish to dwell too much on this brief section of the book, as the vast majority of this tale is concerned with Georgia’s espionage work and her attempts to infiltrate the suspected group.

Overall Thoughts

In contrast to other earlier works by Blake, this novel is an out and out thriller, a genre which is not normally my cup of tea. Yet Blake pulls it off rather well, importantly involving the reader emotionally from very early on. Choosing Georgia to be the centre of the piece and not Nigel is instrumental in this, as it is she who grabs your attention and it is equally she who is actually capable of the feats required. I was pleased that this was Georgia’s novel as often in golden age detective fiction novels, which include married sleuths, the wife of the team, regardless of her competency and expertise, gets side lined. So yes it was nice to see the bloke being relegated to the benches for a change. It should be said though that Nigel is neither petulant nor moody about this reduced role and Blake does make a number of overt comments which emphasise the equality between Nigel and his wife. For instance Blake writes that:

‘It was typical, both of Nigel and the relationship between them, that he attempted no protest. He knew that she could find her way about in the dark like a cat whereas he himself would probably resemble a squadron of tanks if he tried to penetrate this tangle of trees and bushes.’

And for me this felt like a good example of Nigel showing that his acknowledgement of her greater skill in an area does not make him feel like a lesser person. But then in other ways they are quite similar to one another, as both of them are lead into adventures, (even if hers are more physical), by an inexplicable inner urge, a curiosity to find something out. Personally I think if all the Golden Age detective fiction couples had a party and held a competition for the best couple, I think these two would be in with a good chance of winning.

Even more importantly it was also great to see a female lead who does not merely fall into the heroine in jeopardy role, as Georgia certainly proves herself to be one tough cookie. The challenges and physical injury she faces are fairly grim and dramatic, which is why I did find it a shame that her final sinister showdown was so anti-climactic. Given how much that this is her novel, I felt Georgia deserved better, deserved her own hard won final victory. Yet unfortunately it seems Blake lost interest in the suspense and drama he was creating and wanted to finish his novel in a hurry, so the ending somewhat wraps everything up in a matter of pages. Though to be fair I did enjoy the bathos of the final one-two pages, bringing the story full circle.

I would say this is Blake’s most overtly political novel and perhaps as a consequence of this, the narrative itself exudes a greater level of darkness. The deaths feel that much more real. The victims are not mere ciphers, puzzles to be solved, but instead their deaths have quite a high impact on the reader emotionally. Perhaps as well thrillers, as a genre, with their leaning more towards physical violence, force characters and their readers to grabble with moral and ethical quandaries more potently. One death scene in particular was powerfully emotive and if there was a TV adaptation of this book, this scene would have to be included at all costs, though I have the feeling it would eat up most of the production budget.

However, I also loved how this book is a thriller full of oddities, weaving Father Christmases and clock golf into what is quite a dark thriller. There are also a plethora of disguises and I am sure Moira at Clothes in Books would have a field day with finding a picture to represent the costumes of the Radiance Girl dancers, along with the hair based clue that Georgia unravels.

So whilst it may have taken a while to get this book read and reviewed, I still think it is a strong effort by Blake and I shall definitely be returning to his earlier work soon. (No one is going to get me to re-read The Morning After Death!).

Rating: 4.25/5

Oh and the answers to last week’s puzzle are:

  1. Family Matters
  2. Murder at the Manor
  3. Death in the Tunnel
  4. Mystery in the Channel
  5. Death of an Airman
  6. The Division Bell Mystery
  7. The Colour of Murder
  8. The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories
  9. Verdict of Twelve
  10. Death on the Cherwell

13 comments

  1. I think “Blake” got bored with Strangways and only used him as a device in his later books. When he edited a “Nicholas Blake Anthology” he only included one Strangeways book – “The Beast Must Die”, which doesn’t have much of him in it. The last “Blake ” novel – “The Private Wound” – may be his best, but it doesn’t feature Strangways and it’s a crime novel rather than a detective story. “The Deadly Joker”, again, is a good non-Strangeways crime novel.

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    • Writers do get tired of detectives. Doyle of course most famously. Manfred Lee was scathing about the early Ellery Queen, whom I think he came to loathe. Agatha said she tired of Poirot.

      And surely a woman as smart as Sayers must have been as bored by Wimsey at the end as the rest of us were from the beginning … *runs and hides*

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  2. Hi. I really enjoy your blog. Looking for some help with another issue (not The Smiler with the Knife, which I last read about 40 years ago). when I found your blog, I was WWILFing for something else and I found: this blog and information, so I thought about a classic crime event to be held at the British Library in late June 2019. Now, I’m wondering if I imagined this, because I can’t find anything about it again. I live in Melbourne (Oz) and am planning a trip to UK next year. if the CC conference is on, I’d like to include it in my trip. Do you have any info on this, please? cheers, LC

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Like you, I read all the Blake books before I was blogging, and had always thought I wouldn’t go back to this one because I didn’t like the thriller-type plot much. But now you tell me there are great clothes! You temptress… I have no recollection of the Radiance Dancers, but they sound wonderful. I will have to take a look…

    Liked by 1 person

    • haha well your blog name does reveal your Achilles heel lol Sure we could get you to read a Crofts or Penny novel if we promised an interesting fashion item inside. But yes in this one Georgia has a few costume changes, including being a Father Christmas, but I think it is the Radiance Dancers one which will catch your eye.

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  4. Thanks for the review – the thriller-ish nature of this title makes me think I should head here next. 😅 I recent;y read ‘Thou Shell of Death’ and enjoyed it. Perhaps ‘There’s Trouble Brewing’ would be a safer next stop…

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