With only a few days left in November, I’ve thankfully managed to squeeze in my second re-read of the month. I could be wrong but I think this is Blake’s most famous novel due to the film adaptations; the first being an Argentinean thriller made in 1952, the other a French film from 1969. I’ve not watched either of these but having re-read this book I can see how well-made it is for the cinema in terms of the plot, characters, dialogues and emotional hooks. Yet surprisingly this was a novel in which I could remember the solution but could not remember the events leading up to it.
The first third of this book is taken up by the diary of Frank Cairnes, a mystery writer who writes under the name of Felix Lane and who is also determined to find out who ran over and killed his young son, recklessly speeding around a corner. On finding the culprit he plans to kill them in return. The police investigation for many reasons grinds to a halt but Frank gets a few lucky breaks and soon has his quarry in sight. As he gets to know the culprit and his family more intimately he becomes even more convinced by the rightness of his decision and he begins to plan in earnest their demise. The diary cuts off as the time for the murder approaches and it is at this point that Blake makes a game changing twist, which takes this psychological inverted mystery novel in a completely different direction, introducing into the narrative the series sleuth Nigel Strangeways and his wife into the tale, with a perplexing mystery for them to solve.
Unlike some of my past re-reads for the blog, this one has withstood the process and is one I enjoyed as much as when I read it for the first time. The way the structure of the story metamorphoses over the course of the book appeals to me and the diary element is used exceptionally well. As a piece of evidence it reveals the truth in such a way that you can’t initially see it, (there is after all one highly significant literary allusion whose significance only dawned on me at the end), and of course by having the first third of the story given to us in this way with no alternative sources means that a number of assumptions are naturally built up within us, which are not then so easily dismantled when the narration changes. The narrative style of Frank understandably contributes to the success of this as he doesn’t try to white wash himself, yet at the same time there are subtler ways of gaining reader sympathy than saintly behaviour.
Having read all of Blake’s Nigel Strangeways novels I think this is his darkest work, not just because of the central killing of a child, but because of other themes that develop later on in the text, in particular that of domestic abuse. It is not graphically discussed, but nor is it shied away from, brushed under the carpet or excused with patriarchal ideologies. In fact Frank admits his difficulties with knowing how to respond to it. Although there is a great deal of self-conscious artifice in the diary segment of this story, the problems which emerge for Frank and others do not turn murder into a game or a puzzle to be solved and a key reason for this is due to Phil, the 12 year old boy in the novel, whose emotional trauma reminds the reader that death is a serious thing. When re-reading this book it came to me that this book makes for an interesting counterpart to an earlier Blake novel, Thou Shell of Death (1936). It too is a mystery centred on revenge and in fact Blake weaves a number of explicit allusions into the text to do with Jacobean revenge tragedy, so it too has an artificial flavour. Yet I would say today’s read creates a much larger emotional resonance and Phil is largely reason why, especially in regards to the ending of the book. I would also say that the narrative style feels ahead of its 30s time period, which again probably helped its adaptation into film.
So it is almost surprising to say that this story also includes its more light hearted moments. For instance we get a gentle breeziness in Frank’s diary such as when he concludes one entry with the line: ‘Can’t write more now. Just off for a drive with my prospective victim and his family.’ Equally even now after finishing the book the line, ‘Dante won’t butter your parsnips for you,’ still makes me chuckle.
I can see why this book has made its way onto many crime fiction classics or must read lists, as it really is Blake writing at his peak. The next 3 books in the series are still good reads, but none of them reach the heights that this story manages. Therefore it only leaves me to say that if you’ve not read this one before then I highly recommend you get a hold of a copy with all due haste.
It is not surprising that many other reviewers have gone before me in sharing their thoughts on this book and it is even less surprising that Blake’s book gets a general thumbs up all round: Euro Crime, Margot Kinberg, Puzzle Doctor, Sergio, At the Scene of the Crime, Past Offences