Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Nicholas Blake, A Question of Proof

Nicholas Blake, A Question of Proof
© 1935 Nicholas Blake
This edition Rue Morgue Press, 2008
ISBN 978-1-60187-025-4

I seem to be reading (in this case) or re-reading a fair amount of older books this year.  (Nicholas Blake is the pen name of Cecil Day-Lewis, Poet Laureate of England from 1968 to 1972.  I’m not all that fond of his poetry, an example of which is at the end of this review.)

This is the first in his series of mystery novels featuring Nigel Strangways, Oxford drop-out turned private investigator (who apparently possesses a private income as well).  Fortunately, the series gets stronger from here.

At a small English boarding school (apparently encompassing what we might think of as roughly the elementary school years), one of the teachers (“masters”), apparently of English language and Literature (Michael Evans) had fallen in love with Hero Vale, the wife of the Head Master who is much younger than her husband.  They meet somewhat furtively when and as they can, and have a tryst by a haystack shortly before an afternoon of games (with parents in attendance).  And, of course, death—murder—intervenes.  The body of Algernon Wyvern Weymss, the nephew of the Head Master, is found in the same haystack by which Michael and Hero met.

Weymss  is not particularly popular, as he is seen as something of a snitch.  And he has been blacklisted by the “secret society—the Black Spot—at the school.

The local police inspector, Superintendent Armstrong, takes charge of the case, and his attention quite obviously focuses on Michael and Hero.  Not only were they on the spot at or around the time of death, public knowledge of their relationship would likely cost Michael his job and Hero her reputation.  Michael, apprehensive about their situation, asks his friend Nigel Strangeways from their time at Oxford to investigate. 

Somewhat unusually for a lot of the mysteries of the time, Armstrong is not depicted as incompetent or a fool; he is shown to be intelligent, hard-working, and desiring to reach the correct conclusion rather than the easy, obvious one.

Strangeways takes his own approach, which involves extended conversations with the academic staff (there are at least 6 masters and a good deal of time with Michael and Hero.  And he thinks, fairly early on, that he knows who the murderer is.  But he has no convincing proof, and the best he can do is persuade Armstrong not to act precipitously.  Eventually, we get a reenactment of the activities of the day of the murder, which confirms Strangeways in his conclusions.  But at a cost.  And he manages to find the evidence needed to exonerate Michael and Hero as well.

I have read, I think, all of the subsequent Strangeways books (http://www.stopyourekillingme.com/B_Authors/Blake_Nicholas.html) and found them generally quite good.  This one, had I read it first, might not have encouraged me to go on to the others.  I suspect that it might be easier, for someone looking to start these books, to start with #2, Thou Shell of Death (1936), which my memory tells me is quite good.

Ignore this paragraph unless you are a masochist.
And now, I have to digress a bit.  The economics of the school left me a bit puzzled.  We have 6 masters and the head master; at least one full-time groundskeeper (with day-labor as required); a cook; a nurse; and presumably several maids (although only 1 is mentioned by name.  We have, we are told, about 80 students.  I’m having trouble figuring out how the school even breaks even with that few students.  I figure the average annual salary of the masters to be roughly £400 (based on the exchange rate of the Canadian dollar and the US dollar, the exchange rate of the US dollar to the English Pound, and what teachers earned in Canada.  So we have £2400 for the teaching staff.  Other staff salaries would be less than that, probably totaling1/2 to 2/3 as much, so £1200 to £1600.  Annual expenditures on food would probably have run around £60 per person (for the school year; and I’m estimating 12 total staff and 80 students) or about £5000.  Other materials and supplies would probably be less than that, call it £2000.  The Head Master has to make some living from this, say £1000.  So I have a total budget of £12,000 or required fees of £150 per student.  And I’m finding an annual upper-middle class average family income of around £750 in the mid-1930s.  Such a family could easily have 2 children in school at once…so I have some difficulty making the numbers work.  A school of say 150 students would make the financials much more plausible…


Come, Live With Me and Be My Love”
Cecil Day-Lewis

Come, live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
Of peace and plenty, bed and board,
That chance employment may afford.

I'll handle dainties on the docks
And thou shalt read of summer frocks:
At evening by the sour canals
We'll hope to hear some madrigals.

Care on thy maiden brow shall put
A wreath of wrinkles, and thy foot
Be shod with pain: not silken dress
But toil shall tire thy loveliness.

Hunger shall make thy modest zone
And cheat fond death of all but bone -
If these delight thy mind may move,
Then live with me and be my love.


  1. The poem reminded me painfully of what may happen to Social Security and Medicare. And in the UK, the National Health isn't what it used to be either. Don, how are you getting the Blake books? Used? They're not on Kindle, are they? I read all of them, but so long ago I don't remember whodunit, which would make rereading a treat.

  2. I got A Question of Proof from a used bookseller (I don't remember which); the used bookseller aggregators like ABE (AWB.com) will find them for you. And it seems they are available on kindle (an presumably other platforms) for $3.99 each.