NICHOLAS BLAKE. Thou Shell of Death (1936).

27 Sep

This second published adventure of the gentleman sleuth Nigel Strangeways is a tart, clever Golden Age treat. It’s also one of those tales of detection in which the main source of mystery isn’t “Who done it?,” but rather “Who was he?” Fergus O’Brien, a flying ace during the Great War who became a flying hero during the aviation-mad postwar period, is a larger-than-life figure whose murder generates a larger-than-death quandary. ThouShellPenguin.jpgThe homicidal deed occurs on Boxing Day, during a holiday gathering that O’Brien had been hosting at an estate in Somerset. Despite the standard house-party setup, the number of suspects on hand is fairly small. Strangeways, moreover, eliminates a couple of those suspects from consideration before the murder investigation has hardly begun. (In one case, he effectively exonerates a house-party guest by falling in love with her.) Which goes to show that Blake has only a marginal interest in playing the whodunit game. He does not, to be sure, neglect the pleasures of detection: In these pages, Strangeways and the police devote plenty of attention and plenty of shrewd thinking to the victim’s missing will, to a lone set of footprints in the snow, and to sundry other clues. Nor does Blake stint on delivering a genuine puzzle plot. (Puzzle-wise, in fact, the plot is a real humdinger, with a conclusion that cleverly inverts much of the storyline that precedes it.) What occupies the narrative center of this novel, however, is the mystery of O’Brien himself. Some event from his murky past, or some element of his murky character, incited an urge to kill within some member of his house party. What was it, exactly?

Behind the Blake pen name, there was a poet named Cecil Day-Lewis. This effort by Day-Lewis to bring poetry—a sense of romantic vision—into the prosaic business of crime doesn’t always work at the level of execution. He waits too long, for example, before providing a full, rounded sense of O’Brien’s heroic back-story. Yet the novel succeeds in conveying a message that transcends all such particulars: The death of any great man is a mere shell; what lies inside is the deeper conundrum of how he came to meet that fate.


Posted by on September 27, 2012 in British, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle


6 responses to “NICHOLAS BLAKE. Thou Shell of Death (1936).

  1. Steve Lewis

    September 27, 2012 at 2:38 PM

    “Puzzle-wise, in fact, the plot is a real humdinger…”

    I second the motion. They sure don’t write plots like this one any more!

  2. Mike

    September 27, 2012 at 4:45 PM

    Thanks for the comment, Steve. The plot of this book is, indeed, worthy of the puzzle plots that Carr, Christie, Queen, et al., were producing in the same era. As I suggested, it’s not much of a whodunit, but that’s not to say that it isn’t a very fine mystery.

  3. Cavershamragu

    September 28, 2012 at 1:45 PM

    Very nice review Mike – I’ve been saving this one up as Julian Symons was particularly fulsome in its praise. I really enjoyed Blake’s debut A QUESTION OF PROOF and was very impressed by THE BEATS MUST DIE. But I will dig this one out soon, it’s sounds too good to leave on the shelf much longer!

  4. Mike

    September 29, 2012 at 4:02 PM

    Yikes. Whatever you do, Sergio, don’t go back and read Symons’s comment on THOU SHELL OF DEATH in his book MORTAL CONSEQUENCES. It contains a big fat spoiler.

  5. westwoodrich

    October 5, 2012 at 2:24 AM


    I liked this one and really enjoyed THE BEAST MUST DIE. However, I recently read another in the series, THERE’S TROUBLE BREWING, and was less impressed by the story, although the wit was there.

    Have you seen the new covers by Vintage? Lovely….

    • Mike

      October 5, 2012 at 7:35 AM

      Thanks for your comment. I haven’t read “There’s Trouble Brewing,” though I did read “The Beast Must Die” many years ago and remember that it was very good indeed. And thanks for that link; I didn’t know about the new Vintage UK editions of the early Blake novels. They do look nice, and it’s great to see those books back in print.


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