It has been a couple of years at least since I have re-read a Nigel Strangeways mystery. My memory was a little foggy as to whether this novel is the last of the good ones, or whether that title was allocated to the earlier book in the series, The Smiler with the Knife (1939). I had decided this in my mind previously but can’t remember what conclusion I came to in the end!
‘Private detective Nigel Strangeways receives a call for help from Wonderland, a new holiday camp that has recently opened only to be plagued by a series of cruel practical jokes conducted by someone calling themselves ‘The Mad Hatter’. The camp’s owners are convinced a rival firm, desperate to put them out of business, are behind the events. Or could it be a disgruntled employee, or even one of the four hundred guests currently staying at the camp? As the pranks become increasingly dangerous and tensions rise, Nigel must do all he can to uncover the Mad Hatter’s true identity – before it’s too late.’
Reminiscent of some of Agatha Christie’s later Poirot mysteries, Nigel Strangeways does not make an appearance until halfway through the book. Instead for that first chunk of the narrative our anchor character is a holidaymaker at the Wonderland Camp, (which, incidentally, made me think of the BBC sitcom Hi-De-Hi.)
It almost seems odd to be reading a holiday mystery which is set at the start of WW2, as in some ways I am more used to wartime mysteries which incorporate blackouts and air raids. Nevertheless, the conflict is alluded to from the beginning of the story:
‘Young Mr Perry was going to camp. Not a Territorial camp, nor a Scout camp, nor yet a Concentration camp. No, a very different lay-out indeed; a camp which would have made any nomad tribesman rub his eyes in amazement and take to his heels; one Mr Perry hoped, that would provide lavish material for the notebooks…’
Given his role in the mystery, Blake does a good job of succinctly giving us a strong sense of what Perry is like, yet without telling us everything. Perry is portrayed as a man who holds many firm opinions on life. He is pro-neoclassicism and an advocate of the new and the modern. In some passages I think Blake uses him as a vehicle to satirise middle class attitudes, perhaps in particular middle-class Communism:
‘With mild approval young Mr Perry eyed the factories that flashed past into the wake of the train. Factories were permissible, to be encouraged even. Temples of the Machine. Mr Perry, who had never worked at bench or conveyor-belt, was all for the Machine. Of course, there were factories and factories.’
You know from the first person that such a character is going to have an uncomfortable time ahead.
This uncomfortable time starts on the train journey when his attempts to analyse his fellow passengers are truncated by their more open appraisal of himself. A young woman named Sally particularly gets under his skin, (so you know there is going to be a love interest there!). Blake maintains an air of mystery about Perry’s work, hinting that it is not a permanent job, that he is a kind of scientist and that he is interested in people as a crowd. The sinister overtones are eventually dispelled to reveal that he works for Mass Observation, although that does not mean the cloud of suspicion leaves him entirely when it comes to the pranks taking place.
Perry’s interest in people en masse is quickly catered for on the opening night of the camp and again I think this is another moment where WW2 makes its presence felt in the text. One of the activities conducted on the first evening is group singing about Wonderland, and Blake describes it as a “war-cry”. Yet he goes even further writing that:
‘The war-cry was repeated twenty times, each syllable strongly stressed, in a whisper at first, then louder and faster till it reached the hysterical pitch of the Sieg Heils at a Nazi congress […] Paul Perry was both fascinated and horrified by it. his fastidious soul was intensely embarrassed by the proceedings. The synthetic American accent, like a dance-band leader’s, which had replaced Edward Wise’s normal tones, the slick, confident gestures with which he conducted the war-cry – these were vastly repugnant to Paul. But as a dispassionate observer, he could not fail to be interested; while, as one who approved of mass production on principle, he had to approve this curious, machine-like production of mass sound. And not mass sound only. Mass emotion was being stirred, the Wonderland visitors were being welded into a Wonderland community – a great pleasure-unit with a single voice.’
Real life events such as the Nuremberg Rallies spring to mind when reading passages such as this one.
It is long until the emergence of the prankster, the “Mad Hatter” and I think their entry into the text is well executed. Matters begin small but soon snowball from putting treacle inside a piano, up to poisoning a holidaymaker’s dog and someone receiving severe blistering from a chemical reaction. The key to making this type of novel work is depicting how the increasing number of pranks affect the camp psychologically and I think Blake does this effectively. Initially, people don’t take it seriously, put on a stiff upper lip determined to enjoy their holiday, but then this transforms into toxic gossip and people turning on each other. Trying to figure out the end game of the prankster becomes a top priority for the characters and the reader, as Blake does not make it too obvious. As such I would say this unusually structured mystery, in that it does not centre on a murder, is rather in keeping with Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night (1935). I feel they have a similar rhythm.
When Nigel Strangeways enters the picture, Perry falls more into the background, yet with this changeover, we see a shift in suspicion towards him and if you have read other earlier Blake mysteries, you might be wondering whether this is red herring or a double bluff.
I think Blake creates too hard a mystery for a one-man band to solve, as the police are not involved and there is a reliance on psychological clues, which were a bit vague. Since this is a war-set mystery, I was not too surprised by the introduction of a war espionage thread, although I felt this weakened the plot. However, I found Blake’s description of someone shooting another person for the first time, interesting and thoughtful. Blake does not steer into stereotypical masculine heroics and when it comes to Nigel it was unusual to see things all become too much for him at one point, when he is on the telephone to his uncle: ‘From the other end of the wire came the sounds of a strong man fighting down hysteria…’ I like the idea of a murder mystery set at a holiday camp, but I am not sure Blake has done justice to it and I think he would have done more with it earlier in his career. The pacing does falter at times and unfortunately, the end reveal falls flat.
So all in all I think The Smiler with the Knife is probably the last of the very good Strangeway mysteries, although I would say The Case of the Abominable Snowman (1941) is better than Malice in Wonderland.
See also: Jason Hall has also reviewed this title here.