There’s Trouble Brewing (1937) by Nicholas Blake

Nigel Strangeways’ entry into a baffling murder case begins with his reluctant acceptance of a literary society talk, an acceptance only taken in order to win a bet from his wife. It is in the aftermath of this talk that he hears about the discovery of Eustace Bunnett’s dog, found dead in one of the vats at his brewery. He is convinced it was no accident and wants Nigel to take up the matter. Nigel is even more reluctant to acquiesce, given how unpleasant a man Eustace is, but eventually he gives in. Of course by the end of the next day, there will be more than a dog’s death to investigate, as another skeleton is found in the vat and not of the canine variety… But who is the victim? Non-perishable items retrieved from the vat point towards Eustace himself and unfortunately for Nigel and the local inspector, the suspect list is extensive, with illegitimate offspring, potential takeover of the brewery, disgruntled workers, an abused wife and blackmail victim filling up the ranks amongst others.

Overall Thoughts

First up, I thought Blake recreated the brewery setting very well and in particular I felt it was used effectively in the plot action. It didn’t feel like a gimmick, the writer overlooks once the book gets going. The literary society event, although only a scene, was also depicted successfully. An example of Blake humour working well.

Now I know some readers can find Nigel a difficult amateur sleuth to cope with, that his stance as a literary detective is a little too excessive, along with his ego and if you only read the first chapter of this book you might concur. After all I did start wincing at his surmises over the letter writer asking him to do the talk. Yet, this is perhaps where Georgia, his wife, comes into her own, as she delightfully takes him to task and wins herself a quid into the bargain. After this point I feel Nigel’s uppity tendencies are kept in check. I think it is also in this book that Blake begins to dial back some of the eccentricities that he endowed Nigel with in his debut case. I found one passage on the matter quite interesting in light of this. Early on Sophie Cammison talks about her idea of the ideal amateur sleuth, identifying being wildly eccentric as one of the qualifications. She equally goes on to ask Nigel if he has this attribute. His answer is quite revealing: ‘It’s very difficult: some of my friends complain that I’m too eccentric, others that I’m not eccentric enough.’ In some ways I feel we can replace the word ‘friends’ with ‘readers’, as I am increasingly becoming aware of how divisive a character Nigel can be. On a side note I think it is a shame that after the opening chapters Sophie gets pushed more into the background, along with her forthright, humorous and intelligent nature. On another, but slightly more comic, side note though I found the description of Nigel’s singing abilities quite entertaining:

‘his own friends compared it to the barking of a sea lion, to the sound of one of the earliest tractors surmounting a particularly steep gradient of ploughed land […] to a road drill, to the croaking of ravens on a wild and rock-bound coast.’

X factor quality right there?

I don’t think I enjoyed this mystery as much as I did during my first read, yet I still believe it to be a strong novel. This book contains one of Blake’s more intricate and unusual mystery puzzles, though I am aware that the vat aspect of the plot causes diverging opinions on how effective or successful it is. For me I think a shorter page run would have withheld the solution a little longer. However Blake does deliver a dramatic finale which still packs a good punch even on a re-read.

Rating: 4.25/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Read by a fellow challenger (Philly Reader)

Calendar of Crime: April (2) Author’s Birth Month

See also: Rich Westwood, Nick Fuller, Moira Redmond and Peggy Ann

12 comments

  1. This one was my first introduction to Blake; I read it in my early days as a member of the Yahoo version of the Golden Age Detection group – that is, a long time ago. I figured the whole thing out early on but found it an enjoyable ride overall, my favourite thing about it being the noncollaborative local copper, Inspector Tyler, one of the best Lestrades ever in my opinion. I liked the interplay between Nigel and him and I wish Blake had kept him as a recurring foil. My impression upon finishing the book was that it probably wasn’t the greatest mystery I had ever read plotwise, but that Blake was a hell of a writer, one of the best GADers in purely literary terms.

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  2. I couldn’t remember what I thought of this till I re-read my two posts on it (thanks for the link!). Apparently I enjoyed aspects of it, but found other parts snobbish and misogynistic. No surprises there then. I think a Martian might wonder why you and I have read and re-read so many books by Blake between us! They annoy me, but I must have read his entire oeuvre twice, and no doubt will go round again some time. They really are the kind of GA books I most like, despite my having deep reservations about some aspects.

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    • Yes we’ve probably blogged about all of his books between us, though I haven’t re-read all that many of them. 3-4 of earlier ones. Not sure I’ll be as keen to re-read the later books, especially not The Morning after Death! I think that is the book where I have most pronounced problems with Nigel. I’m less bothered by him in the earlier books.

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  3. Thanks for the review, which I’m returning back to, now that I’ve just finished reading the novel. Like “Thou Shell of Death”, this has a twist to the puzzle that turns what appears to be a safe assumption on its head. But where I failed to catch onto the twist in “Shell”, I managed to catch onto the twist in “Brewing”. In that sense I think “Brewing” is the less successful mystery? Admittedly “Brewing” has some very convoluted explorations of the culprit’s plan, but I confess my eyes glazed over during those chapters… 😅

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    • I’d need to re-read TSOD to decide if this one is better or lesser, but I think perhaps readers are more able to make an intuitive leap in regards to a key part of the solution in this one. The convolutions are more window dressing in a way.

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