Unable to find a recommended novel by Nicholas Blake, I ordered The Beast Must Die from abebooks, and read it with even greater interest when I found that Blake is the nom de plume used by Cecil Day Lewis for detective fiction. This is, as you would expect, a well crafted, well written novel, and it has plenty of literary references – rather a symptom of the time, but also what one might expect from such an accomplished poet. I enjoyed it, and will read more – and will recommend Blake to those with a taste for period detective fiction – but that his greater fame is as a poet is probably just.
The motif is now familiar, but must then have been innovative and ingenious. A writer of detective fiction, one Frank Cairnes plans a murder – and writes everything down, as a diary. He plans to keep the diary secret, as an essential psychological release for himself, but in any event can always pass it off as a new novel by his nom-de-plume Felix Lane, an identity he adopts and drops as needed. His victim is the unknown driver of a car which knocked down and killed his young son. We are in a world when every passing car is noticed, and where yokels remember details of the drivers of cars three moths past, and a fair bit of demanding coincidence is required to put Cairnes on the track of his victim.
A complex ploy is hatched, with a degree of subtlety and observation which intrigues the reader, but the action is complicated by several factors which I cannot really tell you now, except that there is an unexpected love affair, and the murder which happens is not the one that is planned! A an amateur detective, Nigel Strangeways, is brought in to protect Cairnes when death does strike, and the final outcome is certainly not obvious or even conventionally happy or abstractly just. A good read, and an encouragement to seek out more by the same author.