“Revenge should have no bounds”: Classic Crime and Jacobean Revenge Tragedy in Thou Shell of Death (1936) by Nicholas Blake


Admittedly I have somewhat fallen off the band wagon this year in my re-reading of crime novels, so it has been nice to return to doing so for this review. It has been seven years since I first read this book, so whilst I remembered a reasonable amount, I had forgotten some of the secondary events and some aspects of the solution.

WARNING – IF YOU HAVE NOT READ THE BOOK, I WOULD ADVISE DOING SO BEFORE YOU PROCEED FURTHER WITH THIS POST.

Synopsis

‘Fergus O’Brien, a legendary World War One flying ace with several skeletons hidden in his closet, receives a series of mocking letters predicting that he will be murdered on Boxing Day.

Undaunted, O’Brien throws a Christmas party, inviting everyone who could be suspected of making the threats, along with private detective Nigel Strangeways. But despite Nigel’s presence, the former pilot is found dead, just as predicted, and Nigel is left to aid the local police in their investigation while trying to ignore his growing attraction to one of the other guests – and suspects – explorer Georgina Cavendish.’

Overall Thoughts

Despite flagging up the links to Jacobean revenge tragedies, in my blog post title, I am bizarrely going to begin my thoughts on this book by considering its nods to Modernist fiction first. Nicholas Blake, under his own name Cecil Day-Lewis, was a famous poet, and was the Poet Laureate from 1968 to 1972, so I wasn’t surprised to find his writing style contained a more “literary” flavour at some points.

Julian Hanna (2009) writes that:

‘Modernism may be defined, in one major view, as the reaction of artists and writers to the drastic changes that accompanied the onset of modernity’ and that it comprised ‘a range of responses to the technological advances and rapid urbanisation experienced.’[1]

Moreover, he goes on to say that this branch of literature was ‘sceptical of traditional social, moral, and religious values and systems.’[2]

Blake’s novel shows evidence of both these aspects. On the opening page we are presented with this description of London:

‘Twilight is descending with the same swift and noiseless efficiency as the lifts in a thousand hotels and stores and offices. Electric signs, winking, shifting, unrolling, flaring, and blaring, announce the varied blessings of twentieth century civilisation […] a few stars, which have had the temerity to appear, seem to have quickly retired…’

It is the objects of the city which have life and vibrancy, with the electric sign dynamically being personified; a variation of which can be seen in Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925). Meanwhile the twilight contrasts with its mechanical blandness. This intertwining of the mechanical with nature can also be found later in the book when it is said that ‘in the garden the leaves of evergreens were depressed and released spasmodically by raindrops from the trees overhead, like typewriter keys under invisible and inexpert fingers.’

Furthermore, Blake’s novel, as it unfolds, reveals through Fergus O’Brien, a strong scepticism of the establishment and government. O’Brien fought during WW1 as a pilot in the RAF, and his traumatic experiences during that period fuel his cynicism of current national plans to improve defences and military technology:

‘It’s a dirty game, though […] Bomb or be bombed, gas or be gassed – the law of the jungle dressed up to look respectable in that damned hypocritical word “security.”’

He goes on to add that his mind ‘knows all about the horrors of war; but it’s too tired to do anything about it.’ O’Brien has a lot to say about the foolish decisions made by ‘brass hats’ and his comments on the negative effects of war arguably aligns Blake’s book with modernist novels such as Mrs Dalloway (1925) by Virginia Woolf and All Quiet on the Western Front (1928) by Erich Maria Remarque. In addition, the events of the First World War return at the end of Blake’s narrative, when it appears that wrongs committed during that time, are the basis for the revenge plot enacted.  

If you are interested in reading more about the connections between modernist literature and golden age detection fiction, I wrote a longer post on it, which you can find here.

Before I get on to discussing Thou Shell of Death and the Jacobean revenge tragedy, I just want to say a few things about Fergus O’Brien as a character, which will hopefully then feed into later points. O’Brien is not the first character in the book whose physical appearance does not meet the expectations his career and life raise, but he is the one most explored. The threatening letters he receives suggest that he is someone’s intended murder victim because he has done something discreditable in his past. So the reader may hold something of a question mark over him. Is he someone deserving of our sympathy? His possible misdemeanours do not gel with the subsequent comments made about him early on in the book. Nigel’s uncle, Sir John Strangeways says that:

 ‘It must be some greatness of integrity that keeps the fire of hero worship burning still for him.’

This idea of integrity seems hard to hold on to given the implications of the letters. Moreover, there is an underlying sense that any peccadilloes he may have committed are going to be overlooked, by men such as Sir John, on the basis that he’s Irish, he’s an explorer and a war hero aviator. I was put in mind of historical figures such as Admiral Nelson, where there seemed to be a different standard of rules and a greater leniency extended to such “dashing” men.

These expectations of how a heroic airman should be are established before we meet him in person. Yet like Nigel we may find ourselves disillusioned with our preconceived notions when we actually encounter O’Brien:

‘the mental picture he had formed of what the airman would look like had been shattered so bewilderingly by his real appearance. He had expected something hawk-like, whipcord tough, of more than mortal stature. He saw a smallish man, whose clothes hung loosely on him, as though he had shrunk in the night: an almost dead-white face […]’

This upending of expectations is continued when Nigel discovers that all the domestic touches at the Dower House are performed by O’Brien himself, rather than a housekeeper. Nigel says to him:

‘I seemed to detect the trace of a woman’s hand.’

To which O’Brien replies:

‘Mine, I should think. I like fussing about with flowers and things. Beneath me beard, I’m an elderly maiden lady.’

Flower arranging is not quite what the reader may have envisaged for an explorer and famous airman and there is something positively Snowman White about him when the birds all draw to his side. Nevertheless, this does not stop other characters from viewing him in the swashbuckling Sir Walter Drake mould, as Lord Marlinworth describes him as the ‘last of the Elizabethans.’ Interestingly, in addition, looking back on the book as a whole, I find that Blake is doing more than providing an unusual character, as in fact O’Brien’s assertion that he attends to the various domestic details around the house, is a very early clue that he would have the opportunity to plant the poisoned nut which finishes off one of his guests.

My decision to explore Blake’s story through the lens of Jacobean revenge tragedy, is naturally influenced by the text itself, which overtly talks about and weaves into the narrative Thomas Middleton’s/Cyril Tourneur’s The Revenger’s Tragedy (1606). The title is derived from a line in the play itself and if you have read Blake’s book, you will know that Nigel Strangeways clearly explains at the end how O’Brien fashioned his revenge plot around Middleton’s play, seeing his own past traumas mirrored in it. Since Nigel does a very good job of outlining these parallels, I am not going to list them here. Just flick to the final pages in the book if you want to refresh your memory. Instead I want to look at the narrative as a whole and how it embodies components of the Jacobean revenge tragedy tradition more widely and implicitly.

Wendy Griswold (1986) sums up revenge tragedies well, defining them as featuring:

‘someone who prosecutes a crime in a private capacity, taking matters into his own hands because the institutions by which criminals are made to pay for their offences are either systematically defective or unable to cope with some particularly difficult situation. Such plays testify to an apparently ineradicable yearning for justice […]’[3]

She goes on to write that ‘regardless of when the crime has occurred, there is some delay in achieving the desired revenge.’[4] Thou Shell of Death fits this formula quite neatly, as there is a twenty year gap between the wrongs O’Brien suffered and the time he enacts his revenge plan. Looking at the nature of the wrongs also coincides with O’Brien’s need to exact punishment ‘in a private capacity.’ Edward Cavendish’s pressurising letters to Judith Fear push her to commit suicide, so he is morally culpable for her death, but legally it might have been hard to convict him. If the letters were retained, then maybe some kind of blackmail could be proven but I am not sure how harsh the punishment would have been, as there was no money involved. Then there is Knott-Sloman, who worked higher up in the RAF during WW1 and it was he who gave an order which led to the death of Judith’s brother, who O’Brien was great friends with. Moreover, prior to Judith’s death he was not able to get any leave. Arguably if he had obtained it then Judith’s suicide may not have occurred after all. Yet again, legally it would be hard for O’Brien to bring about any justice. Consequently, both of these wrongs fulfil the idea of a ‘difficult situation’ the system could not do much about.

There are mixed opinions on the value and appropriateness of revenge. Katharine Maus (1998) points out that ‘on the one hand, vengeance seems a form of savage, but appropriate repayment,’ but that ‘on the other, in revenge tragedy visions of restored equilibrium almost always turn out to be mirages.’[5] This latter idea brings up the idea of evaluating the long-term success of such revenge plans, what do they ultimately achieve? Maus continues, commenting that ‘revenge contributes to a spiral of violence, its horrors exacerbate the agony it attempts to alleviate.’[6] Plays such as Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus (1594) spring to mind. The person committing revenge is put into a difficult position, as invariably the act of committing revenge, entails committing further crimes and the mental anguish this can cause is often explored. Yet when I turned my attention to Blake’s book, I wondered – is this explored here?

In earlier Jacobean revenge tragedies ‘the protagonist’ according to Griswold, is ‘the object of revenge,’[7] (though later plays moved away from this). I think Blake cleverly plays around with this trope, as the way the mystery is set up, we are persuaded to believe that O’Brien is the one who has committed the wrong, and that revenge is to be exacted upon him.  This is compounded by the fact that he is the first person to die in the narrative and it is this component which turns on its head the downsides to revenge, which Maus outlines. O’Brien has no expectation of any restoration. Judith and her brother cannot be brought back to life, and he himself is dying of an incurable illness. His death is not part of the book’s finale, filled with regret and despair. It is the opening catalyst for the plot, and he dies with a smile on his face. So we might ask ourselves whether his revenge plan is more successful than some of those found in 16th and 17th centuries plays?

Nevertheless, O’Brien’s deceptive revenge plan still maps on to the Jacobean revenge tragedy pattern. Rowland Wymer (2000) identifies ‘Machiavellian intrigue,’[8] as an important component within the genre and Griswold equally notes the role of trickery. Both of these labels fit O’Brien’s scheme quite well, as he has to anticipate the actions of his victims very accurately, as he will not be around to thwart them. In addition, the extreme and violent ends O’Brien goes to, to vanquish his enemies, also corresponds with the worldview generated by the earlier revenge tragedies.

From a puzzle plot point of view, O’Brien’s plans are also highly effective in achieving reader surprise. A killer eliminating themselves to propel their murderous scheme, is not a common device, in classic crime fiction, though Agatha Christie’s work includes a famous example of it. This unusual aspect of the plot, combined with the fact that O’Brien’s death occurs at the beginning, means that we are not aware of his full plan until the end, and as a consequence I think we are able to build up a greater degree of sympathy for him, than is sometimes possible in an inverted mystery. This is also an example of misdirection as we assume that the first death is the culmination of the revenge plan, rather than its inauguration, a structuring device which reminds me of Christie’s Towards Zero (1944).

Revenge tragedy and detective fiction are remarkably similar in some respects. Both seek justice and want answers for the crimes that have been committed, and the mysteries that have occurred. Certain examples of classic crime fiction even blur the lines between these two roles, as the revenger has to start out in the detective mode, before shedding that particular role for their final one as killer. Even in the 16th century these roles were merged, if we think of something like Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1609).

T. F. Wharton (1988), when discussing The Revenger’s Tragedy, opines that:

‘They have this much justification: that in a world which has already become grotesque, and in which somehow they must survive, the only possible response to extravagant evil and suffering is the laughter of the absurd. Not even one’s own life can be taken seriously, let alone a set of moral imperatives.’[9]

I felt this quote was embodied by O’Brien quite a bit in the story. When Nigel is revealing the true solution to the deaths, his mentions how much O’Brien struggled with wanting to live after the deaths of Judith and her brother. During the war he did more and more reckless acts, as he had no cares about dying. For him the world had ‘become grotesque’ and his daredevil survival strategy only changes once he locates Edward Cavendish. Wharton suggests that ‘the only possible response to extravagant evil and suffering is the laughter of the absurd’ and again I think this comes out in the threatening letters O’Brien sends to himself. Yes, they are necessary for his plot, but he cannot help adding the touch of humour the letters contain. Nigel notices it himself and asks: ‘Have you ever known a murderer with a sense of humour? That crack about Good King Wenceslas is really most pleasing. I feel I could take to the fellow who wrote it.’ These lines also show the complicated nature of sympathy in this novel, as Nigel does take to O’Brien and his admiration of him is not diminished when Nigel uncovers his plan. O’Brien also comments on the humour in the letters, echoing Wharton’s sentiments: ‘only when you’re in dead earnest that you can afford to joke about it.’

Douglas Bruster (2005) notes that ‘the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean era […] constituted a signal transitional period in English history’ and that ‘the social landscape itself became especially changeful.’[10] These developments were unsurprisingly woven into the plays of the day. The same can be said for the interwar period, which was full of economic ups and downs, social and political changes, as well as technological and scientific advancements. Again the literature of the day often captured this time of transition on the page. Blake’s book is one such example of this, with even one of the characters commenting that ‘we live in times of rapid change.’ At the beginning of the book, when Nigel arrives at the Dower house that O’Brien is renting, we have the juxtaposition of the traditional Dower house contrasting with the army hut which O’Brien erected next to it, to do his aeronautical research. Nigel himself describes the hut as an ‘anachronism,’ which seems ironic as it is making the modern structure appear to be the one out of time and unnatural.

Yet in both periods the literature of the era was not just objectively recording these changes, but they were also expressing opinions on them. I have already discussed previously about the way O’Brien critiques developments within military defence, but his viewpoint in this respect, chimes in well with how ‘Jacobean plays were particularly violent, cynical, pessimistic,and frequently dealt with thetheme of society’s moral corruption.’[11] O’Brien suggests that changes need to be made in society yet is reluctant to be part of the process. His choice of victims to be revenged upon are also arguably connected to the idea of ‘moral corruption,’ as the actions of both Cavendish and Knott-Sloman, in the present, as well as in the past, are morally questionable and dubious.

Moving more on to characterisation, Martin Wiggins (1998) asserts that ‘around 1610, Jacobean tragedy began to turn increasingly towards themes arising out of human sexuality’ and that the actions of the plays, invariably tragic, ‘develop out of carnal feelings of one or more of the principal characters.’[12] The same I feel can be said for Blake’s book, and the crime that is devised within it. Superintendent Bleakley at one point even exclaims that ‘there’s a hell of a lot of sexual passion lying about in this party.’ Relationships, formed or broken, fuel several potential motives for O’Brien’s death, and are at the root of the deaths he himself commits. Lucille Thale, a very frank gold digger, who wouldn’t seem out of place in a 17th century play, is O’Brien’s current mistress. Although he was supposed to be breaking up with her, to pursue a relationship, though not marriage, with the female explorer Georgina Cavendish. Lucille used to be Edward Cavendish’s mistress, but he was ditched for O’Brien. O’Brien cleverly manipulates this situation, as he utilises a note he received from Lucille and plants it in Edward’s room, so he will be lured out to the hut in the middle of the night. Passion is deceptive in this book, as later on, O’Brien’s interest in Georgina is called into question – was he just using her to get to Edward, and her supply of poison? This self-interested use of sexuality again fits the world created in Jacobean plays.

Finally, I think Blake’s use of chapter titles also endeavours to connect with The Revenger’s Tragedy. Predominantly each chapter title includes the word ‘tale.’ This may make one think of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1392), especially since some of the titles focus on a specific person’s tale. However, I wonder whether instead they are another nod to Middleton’s play, since on the last page of Blake’s book he has a character quote a line from it: ‘it is a piteous tale.’

Well done if you have made it this far! I have talked about some parts of the mystery plot already but here are a few final comments on Blake’s book.

The Saturday Review, on the 16th May 1936, in its Criminal Record section, gave a mostly positive review of this book: ‘Its twistings and turnings are amazing and its classic allusions extra erudite, and its very wordy – but good hunting.’ Their final verdict was ‘cerebral,’ and I would say their estimation is a reasonable one, including the wordiness of the narrative. I enjoyed it, but I can see some readers becoming a little less patient with it.

Georgina Cavendish is a favourite character of mine. I like how she is a can-do and brave explorer. She is the sort of person you would like to meet in real life, and I enjoyed the subsequent novels she appears in. Blake takes an interesting approach in the way he constructs the courtship between Georgina and Nigel. For quite a bit of the book she is in love with O’Brien and it is only in the final third of the book that things begin to change in that quarter. This surprised me during my re-read as I had thought their courtship began sooner in the narrative. Nigel is not the first sleuth to fall in love with a woman who looks very guilty, Philip Trent in E. C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case (1913) famously does so, as does Dorothy L. Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey in Strong Poison (1930). I was also surprised how little Georgina appears in the book. Perhaps my fondness for her as a character made me misremember her as being more centre stage than she is.

I think Blake packs a lot into his book, as the investigation takes place over a short space of time, so it keeps the pace well. The reader has a lot to consider when it comes to the deaths and violent incidents in the book. Are they of the same plot or two separate ones? And of course there is the difficulty of trying to decide which way round to view the case from. The narrative is very good at making you look at things the wrong way, in my opinion. Regarding the solution, I felt in terms of structure it was within Christianna Brand territory, wherein we are given a seemingly right solution, only for it to be upended. Blake only has one false solution, but I think he uses it very convincingly.

All in all, this was a page turning read, even though I had read it once before and if you have not tried Blake yet, I recommend giving it a go forthwith! Second hand copies are available, but Agora Books have also reprinted it too.

Rating: 4.75/5


[1] Hanna, J (2009). Key Concepts in Modernist Literature. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan. p. X.

[2] Hanna, J (2009). Key Concepts in Modernist Literature. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan. p. XII.

[3] Griswold, W (1986). Renaissance Revivals: City Comedy and Revenge Tragedy in the London Theatre 1576-1980. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 60.

[4] Griswold, W (1986). Renaissance Revivals: City Comedy and Revenge Tragedy in the London Theatre 1576-1980. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 59.

[5] Maus, K. (1998). Introduction. In: Maus, K. Four Revenge Tragedies. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. IX-XXXI (p. X).

[6] Maus, K. (1998). Introduction. In: Maus, K. Four Revenge Tragedies. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. IX-XXXI (p. X).

[7] Griswold, W (1986). Renaissance Revivals: City Comedy and Revenge Tragedy in the London Theatre 1576-1980. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 60.

[8] Wymer, R. (2000). Jacobean Tragedy. In: Hattaway, M. A Companion to English Renaissance Literature and Culture. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. pp. 545-556 (p. 545).

[9] Wharton, T. F (1988). Moral Experiment in Jacobean Drama. London: Macmillan Press. p. 3.

[10] Bruster, D (2005). Drama and the Market Place in the Age of Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 1.

[11] H, T. K. (2014). What are major features of Jacobean drama, especially with reference to the works of John Webster, Francis Beaumont, John Fletcher, Philip Massinger, and Thomas Dekker?. Available: https://www.enotes.com/homework-help/what-major-features-jacobean-drama-with-special-466397. Last accessed 18th Dec 2020.

[12] Wiggins, M. (1998). Introduction. In: Wiggins, M. Four Jacobean Sex Tragedies. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. VII-XXI (p.VII).

9 comments

  1. This was the first Blake I read and it hooked me to find as many as I could. I won’t attempt to comment on the Jacobean revenge connection, since that wasn’t an area of study for me. But I found links to Shakespeare certainly and even to the much later (and less bloody) writing of George Eliot. What snagged me initially was, in fact, the poetic tone (I’ll admit with chagrin that I only found out who Nicholas Blake was later) and that tone struck me as very like the “other” Blake, the poet.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think I read the Blake books in order, so I got this one quite quick too. It does make for a good introduction to this work and his writing period. I would say the second half of his books do not match this one, or the quality of the other early books.

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  2. A fascinating article, but I’ve got a few remarks:

    “his comments on the negative effects of war arguably aligns Blake’s book with modernist novels such as The Good Solider by Ford Madox Ford”
    Are you thinking of Parade’s End here? Despite its title and publication date, The Good Soldier was written and set before the outbreak of WWI and does not involve war in any form.

    Another Jacobean writer, Francis Bacon, wrote in Of Revenge in 1625 – after most of the great revenge plays were written – “Revenge is a kind of wild justice; which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out. For as for the first wrong, it doth but offend the law; but the revenge of that wrong putteth the law out of office.” the beginning of an essay explicitly rejecting the morality of revenge.
    When the book was written The Revenger’s Tragedy was ascribed to Cyril Tourneur. Thomas Middleton’s involvement is a recent hypothesis. I can’t remember if Blake mentions the author in the book, though O’Brien deliberately misattributes the relevant lines when he quotes them.

    O’Brien’s Irishness and Anglo-Irish relations are important aspects of the book. One person “behind” him, I’m pretty sure, is T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), the bastard son of an Irish baronet and someone with an equivocal attitude to empire and involvement with aircraft – as an RAF airman rather than a pilot – and another influence I’d guess is W. B. Yeats’s An Irish Airman Foresees his Death, about Major Robert Gregory.
    The third Irishman here is Day Lewis himself – an Irishman by birth in the early stages of a career which would see him become a British Poet Laureate – and his own position as both Irishman and Briton continued to concern him. His last “Nicholas Blake” book, The Private Wound – a very good novel rather than a detective story, and with no Strangeways- returns to Ireland in the War of Independence and the Civil War just after WWI.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your comment. Yes I had got into a muddle with my modernist war novel. I have rectified the matter.
      I did see there were two names put for The Revenger’s Tragedy, saw on the covers Middleton being billed at the top and Google seems to identify that as the primary author. But I have put both names in at the first mention now.
      The Bacon quote is an interesting one. Certainly fits in with the themes discussed at the time. I wouldn’t say the revenge tragedies necessarily endorsed revenge as something the audience should go and do themselves. But very often for those trying to exact revenge, their plans spiral out of control and events move beyond their own control too.
      I was aware of Blake’s Irish background but not of the possible people he might have based O’Brien on.
      The Private Wound is one of the few Blake books I have not read yet. Is the mystery in it rather slight?

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      • The Private Wound is actually set in the 1930s, with the War of Independence and the Civil War as background. The mystery element isn’t strong – it’ more a study of character and amour fou.
        The end of The Revenger’s Tragedy echoes Bacon – it came first chronoligically of course – in the last act when Antonio condemns Vindice and his brother to death and Vindice accepts his fate. There’s a fascinating film version – set in a futuristic Liverpool, for some reason – starring Christopher Ecclestone. I remember Thou Shell of Death particularly for the misattributed quotation. As a schoolboy fascinated with Revenge drama I’d just read The Revenger’s Tragedy and recognised that O’Brien was wrong about the play and thought it was Blake’s own mistake With the arrogance of youth I prided myself in knowing more about English literature – or part of it – than a Poet Laureate until Day Lewis kicked the feet from under me at the end of the book!

        Liked by 2 people

      • Incidentally, The Good Soldier by Ford is:
        – very nearly a mystery itself
        – surpassingly brilliant
        – the best 20th century English novel I know of

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