The Beast Must Die (1938) by Nicholas Blake

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.

Overall Thoughts

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.

Rating: 4.5/5

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

23 comments

  1. This seems to be Blake’s ticket to immortality, the one book everyone keeps thinking about every time his name comes up, much like Tragedy at Law and The Moving Toyshop are to Cyril Hare and Edmund Crispin respectively – though like them it isn’t necessarily the author’s most representative work. In keeping with my lifelong policy of bypassing established classics in favour of obscure items no has ever heard about, I have yet to read it but your review made me move it higher up my TBR pile.

    Interestingly, it was reprinted here last year after having been out of print for forty years (the movie is more famous than the book here, and the few people who have heard of Nicholas Blake know him best as Daniel Day-Lewis’s father) and it elicited some suprisingly positive critical reaction considering that it was a Golden Age mystery, a kind of book that local critics are usually not very fond of. Part of me hoped that the rest of Blake’s catalogue would follow, but I seem to have been too optimistic as nothing came up. That’s unfortunate as half Blake’s work has never been translated and the rest has been out of print for decades.

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    • I can feel a bit cynical about “classics” or hyped up books by certain authors, but this book is probably one of those exceptions in that it deserves the merit bestowed upon it. It is therefore a shame that Blake’s work never really returns to this level of originality and expression. You are right though that this style is not representative of Blake’s work wholly – the nods to literary allusions is common in early Blake but in terms of narrative variation his work operates within more conventional fields normally. You’re not missing out much on not having the second half of the Strangeways series translated. They’re fairly middling novels and the last one is highly disturbing for readers who have journeyed with Nigel throughout the series. The Beast Must Die is arguably Blake’s most unconventional book so is probably a good place for you to start.

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      • His best? Well, no, not for me – I still prefer LE BOUCHER actually but it is a very good movie from the sometimes who at times was just too prolific! I really liked his version of L’ENFER too 🙂

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    • Your welcome! I didn’t realise the movie left Strangeways out, though despite being a bit of purist when it comes to adaptations I think that could work quite well. Probably because this book could have easily been made as a stand alone novel. NS is not really needed. But like The Moving Finger doesn’t need Miss Marple.

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  2. Thanks for the review… I’ve only read two Nicholas Blake novels featuring Nigel Strangeways, and should rectify that soon. I’ve heard very good things about this particular title, but when I last took it out of the library, I found the the heftiness of the tome slightly off-putting. Then again, the font size was also unusually large… 😅 Still debating whether I should read ‘Question of Proof’, ‘Trouble is Brewing’ and ‘Beast Shall Die’ next – all of which I believe are meant to be Blake’s strongest works.

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    • I wouldn’t say it is too big a volume. My edition was around 290 pages but the word font wasn’t large print but was fairly generous in size, so it still feels like a quick read. The first 4 are definitely Blake’s best, with this being the best of these four. The first three novels are much more conventional detective novels in structure. NS as a character becomes less quirk filled after the first novel. So given how much you enjoy leaving the best till last you should just read books 1-4 in chronological order in a massive Blake binge lol

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  3. I have this on my TBR for next year, having finally decided to give Blake another go. So while you and everyone loving it should be music to my, er, eyes, I now have a heightened fear of hating it even more than I would have done already… 😂

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    • Is it because we all have bad taste in books? lol Well you wouldn’t be you if you weren’t swimming against the tide of popular opinion. However I am hoping it is a double bluff, so we all expect you to not enjoy it because you don’t always enjoy popular choices or classics, but because of this expectation you then end up enjoying it to contradict this popular notion of yourself. Who knew reading was so complicated?

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    • Said like that it is hard to take seriously but I think how it comes across in the text is more, he wants to talk to her/ get close to her to find out the information he needs. Striking up a semi-relationship with her was an unexpected part of the plan, but I think it came across naturally enough.

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