Crime Fiction Alphabet: Q is for A Question of Proof

In 1935 poet Cecil Day-Lewis published his first work of detective fiction, under the name Nicholas Blake.  I must assume that the writing was lucrative or enjoyable, or maybe even both, as he went on to write another nineteen over a period of more than thirty years.

And that first book was entitled “A Question of Proof”, allowing me to use the potentially tricky letter Q in my Crime Fiction Alphabet to see just what a former Poet Laureate might have brought to the golden age of crime writing.

Of course he brought lovely writing, and he also brought a nice little mystery. 

 A schoolboy, the headmaster’s rather unpopular nephew, is found dead, strangled, in a haystack on Sports Day at an English preparatory school. Nobody saw anything. Nobody heard anything.

There is just one clue: the propelling pencil found in the haystack. That put the teacher who it belonged to in a rather difficult position. Because he dropped the pencil during the course of an assignation with the headmaster’s wife. Did the boy see something he shouldn’t have? Was he killed to keep him quiet?

Maybe. But other possibilities present themselves.

There is no evidence though. No proof.

The headmaster, concerned that the local police are not making progress, calls in gentleman detective Nigel Strangeways.

The detective, who is both charming and intelligent, wins the trust of both teachers and pupils. He watches, he listens, and he deduces who the killer must be.

Still though, there is the question of proof.

And there is another murder before that question is finally answered…

I was transported to that school in the 1930s.

Because the characters were so simply and so clearly drawn. I could hear their voices and I could believe in their relationships.

Because the evocation of time and place was wonderful, rich with details that really brought it to life.

At first the pace was slow and the style a little self conscious. I rather resented the omniscient narrator steering me this way and that. I wondered what I wasn’t being allowed to see, and whether those authorial flourishes were padding to disguise a slight story.

But things soon settled down. The story hit its stride, and that narrator took a step back and steered me so gently that I was hardly aware he was there.

Something was missing though. The mystery lacked the depth, the possibilities to ponder that can be found in many golden age mysteries.

But that second murder was very, very clever.

And it did hold me. I read happily until the denouement came. It was dramatic, it was surprising, but I wasn’t sure that the motivation for murder was really there.

So I’m can’t file A Question of Proof under great, but I am going to file it under promising. After all, it’s the first of a series that could well grow in stature …

*****

The Crime Fiction Alphabet is hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.

“Each week, beginning Monday 10 January 2011, you have to write a blog post about crime fiction related to the letter of the week …”

And so next week R is for … ?

8 responses

  1. ‘Lovely writing’ goes a long way with me, but it seems as though it’s the plot that let this book down a bit for you. I haven’t read any of Blake’s books but according to Barry Forshaw in The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction his book The Beast Must Die (1938) is ‘one of the most compelling crime novels ever written’. More books to look out for 🙂

  2. For som reason I’ve never read Nicholas Blake, although I love Cecil Day-Lewis’ poetry. He and his wife, Jill Balcon, used to come and read occasionally at the poetry festival in Stratford and it was always an immense pleasure. I’m sorry this didn’t quite hold together for you, but I think I will investigate Blake and see if I get on with him.

  3. Jane – Your post got my attention when you talked about Blake’s terrific writing style, and the school setting. I can certainly see why you think of this as “promising.” But I agree with you that a compelling motive for murder really is an important part of a “can’t-forget-it-couldn’t-put-it-down” mystery. Thanks for sharing this detailed and thoughtful review :-).

  4. I read A Question of Proof in my final year of high school, 1957, and have since read all of Nicholas Blake. My favourite is The Smiler with the Knife, not a detective novel but a great thriller, just the thing for a cold wet afternoon, and Georgia is wonderful – why ever did he dispose of her?

  5. I haven’t read anything by Nicholas Blake yet but I’m going to look out for him now as I love vintage crime, and you think this first one is promising. Thanks.

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