Murder isn’t what first brings private-inquiry agent Nigel Strangeways to the genteel offices of the Wenham & Geraldine publishing house. The firm’s lead partners initially hire him to find out who caused libelous passages to sully one of its books, a recently published military memoir. Yet the setting for his investigation proves to be an ideal venue both for homicide and for the detection of a culprit. Wenham & Geraldine occupies a stately London townhouse near the Thames Embankment; it’s a small family-run operation in which people’s habits are well known, and their movements easily tracked. When murder does occur, Strangeways knows just where to look for clues.
The victim is Millicent Miles, an author of vaguely scandalous potboilers who has been writing her vaguely scandalous memoirs in one corner of the rambling townhouse. As she types away late on a Friday afternoon, someone comes along and cuts her throat. Strangeways, in redirecting his inquiry to this new crime, suspects a connection between her death and the libel matter. But he and Inspector Wright, the Scotland Yard man assigned to the case, soon discover a welter of other possible motives, most of them involving long-buried ties between Miles and various associates of the firm. Blake’s deft and detailed teasing-out of those ties, and of the circumstances that surround the killing—there are floor plans and timetables, along with items left behind by the murderer and comments overheard by witnesses—render this old-style detective story a classic of its kind.
[ADDENDUM: Nicholas Blake was the pseudonym under which Cecil Day-Lewis wrote roughly 20 crime and mystery novels, all but a few of them featuring Strangeways. Under his own name, he wrote poetry, belonged loosely to the circle of Oxford poets that also included W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender, embraced and then rejected Communism, and served as Poet Laureate of England from 1968 until his death, in 1972. Most famously, perhaps, he gave the Day-Lewis name to his son Daniel, the Oscar-winning actor who in his craft embodies another kind of mystery. Writing as Blake, Cecil Day-Lewis contributed to the movement in the 1930s to modernize the traditional English detective story by endowing it with a greater measure of thematic depth and literary polish. Nowadays, his work seems more like the close of an earlier chapter in the genre’s history than like the start of a new one.]