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.
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.
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Read by a fellow challenger (Philly Reader)
Calendar of Crime: April (2) Author’s Birth Month