In May 2012, publishers Vintage are re-issuing the first four crime fiction novels published by C Day-Lewis under the pen-name, Nicholas Blake. Here, his son, Sean Day-Lewis, a distinguished journalist for many years at the Daily Telegraph, recalls his father’s alter ego, and finds the connections between the life of the poet and his characters in the 20 Nicholas Blake novels.
Cecil Day-Lewis discovered his poetic vocation while still a schoolboy at Sherborne in Dorset. For his books of and about poetry, and other serious writing, he came to discard the hyphen, with its bourgeois signals, as well as reducing his disliked Christian name to the initial C. For the 20 detective novels he produced through the years of 1935 to 1968 he adopted, and at first hid himself behind, the pseudonym of Nicholas Blake.
His second son, born in 1934, was a Nicholas. His long dead Dubliner mother was a Blake before marriage, as well as claiming descent from the family of Oliver Goldsmith. Also the family tree, an almost compulsory compilation among the Anglo-Irish, included an obscure and unlikely supposed pirate callled Nicholas the Black.
Whatever his optimism at Sherborne and poetic attachments as an Oxford undergraduate, my father soon realised that he would not be able to make a living purely through his verse. He took a series of teaching positions at moderately grand prep schools, preparing their boys for the expensive public schools to be endured through their teenage years. He felt sufficiently well paid to embark on a first marriage, aged only 24, and to start his own family. By the autumn of 1934 he had published Dick Willoughby, the first of his two Dorset-set, full-length adventure novels for boys. This did little for his bank balance and he wrote to one friend that he had “practically finished a detective novel”.
For a while he ran into a blockage but financial need set him going again. As well as providing for wife Mary, and me and my brother Nicholas, he discovered that the roof of our Cheltenham home was leaking and needed replacing. By March 1935, the Crime Club had published the first Blake story, A Question of Proof, costing all of 7s 6d per hardback, and the £100 needed for the roof became available. A while after the eras of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and then John Buchan’s Richard Hannay this was the best selling decade of fictional crime, mostly murder and the search for whodunit, written about middle class characters for middle class readers.
Leading the way was the publisher William Collins. He invented his Crime Club in 1930. By the time Nicholas Blake was hauled on board writers such as Freeman Wills Crofts, Philip Macdonald, Ngaio Marsh and Agatha Christie ensured that the imprint was a byword for popularity. It may be that CDL himself would have been content to use his own name, or what was left of it, as ‘tec writer. His agent AD Peters advised against this. Perhaps it was thought that an identity including a split between orthodox schoolmaster, Communist activist and serious poet might help to deter sales. Thus Nicholas Blake was born.
Following the already established style of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, writers who took up the genre in this period felt bound to use a private detective, invariably cleverer and more perceptive than the plodding local police. These paragons, though frequently eccentric in manner, had special minds that could be relied on to solve all mysteries in, or shortly before, the last chapter. Nicholas Blake decided on the “able and well connected”, not to mention comfortably wealthy, independent detective and would-be poet Nigel Strangeways. He who began his existence as a very recognisable portrait of CDL’s Oxford poetry colleague WH Auden. There are many glimpses of Auden’s personal foibles at this time, sexual activities apart, if no hint that he might come to be recognised by contemporaries as the great English poet of his time. He would figure in all but four Blake stories
In A Question of Proof some 108 pages are filled before “a fellow called Strangeways” steps out of a first class compartment on what might be the Cheltenham Flier from Paddington. He is a well-bred nephew of Scotland Yard’s Assistant Commissioner and has chosen amateur crime Investigation as “the only career that offers scope to good manners and scientific curiosity”. He is to be whisked to Sudeley Hall Preparatory School where an obnoxious boy’s murdered body had been found and he must discover whodunit. His school hosts see him walk down the platform with “rather ostrich-like strides” before “blinking short-sightedly” (at the Headmaster’s wife, Hero) and “bowing over her hand with a courtliness a little spoilt by the angularity of his movement”. After which “he made one or two flat remarks, which his loud and exuberant voice somehow redeemed from banality, and they moved off the platform and got into the car”.
Sudeley Hall has many features in common with Summer Fields, the north Oxford prep school where CDL took his first utility teaching job in 1927. Eight years later Nicholas Blake took a kindly view of the institution and its grandee, Eton bound boys. One of his pupils Benedict Nicolson, elder son of Sir Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West, reported that he knew more French than his supposed teacher Mr Day Lewis. Strangeways remembered no such incompetence at Sudeley.
CDL wrote his elegant autobiography as The Buried Day (1960). That was one account of his life. Another, not always easy to find, is contained in his verse. A third, most crowd-pleasing in its entertainment, is the complete set of Blake books. Each story gives some account of change and movement in CDL’s recent life. As he went to work on his second Blake story, his wish to retire from teaching and become a full-time writer was being advanced by those in command at Cheltenham College and the junior school where he now taught. He described his appearance before Lord Lee of Fareham and outraged fellow Governors as a court martial. He was accused of writing pornography with the affair between the Headmaster’s wife and the most personable young master in A Question of Proof; and of Bolshevism. In the event the governors voted to take no action but CDL was left shaking with indignation and, with the example of Auden and the help of literary supporters, he decided to take the plunge into full time writing. Christmas term 1935 would mark the end of his teaching career.
By January of the following year he was able to publish his second Blake, Thou Shell of Death, with a dedication “to my late colleagues with gratitude and affection”. In this case Nigel is centre stage from start to finish. He is despatched to rural Somerset by his uncle and guardian, Assistant Commissioner Sir John Strangeways, to protect the life of a daredevil fighter pilot. He fails in this task but is then able to exercise his talent in discovering who killed the “legendary” Fergus O’Brien, who was unbelievably credited with shooting down 64 German fliers in World War One. While going about his inquiries Nigel is able to enjoy the landscape where CDL enjoyed his first post-marital love affair, with the handsome wife of the vicar and godfather who officiated at my 1931 Christening. In the story Nigel is much taken with Judith Fear’s “lovely, sad, elfish” and deceased face. But at the end “the face of Georgia Cavendish seemed to smile at him out of the shadowy future”. She who would become his wife, transmuting into CDL’s first wife, my mother Mary.
The Day-Lewis family address through the mid-1930s was Box Cottage, Bafford Lane, Charlton Kings, Cheltenham. For his third Blake he looked next door, where local independent brewer Teddy Hopcraft and family were quite grandly housed. The action of There’s Trouble Brewing (1937) is placed in the Dorset heart of Thomas Hardy country but the careful research into brewery work was clearly developed from Blake observation at Hopcraft’s.
Nigel Strangeways, now married to Georgia though they sleep like my parents in separate beds, “would normally have run miles to avoid a literary society” but in this case is persuaded to accept an invitation, to speak about the post-war poets to Maiden Astbury Literary Society. A veil is soon drawn over his hosts’ literary interests when he meets the pompous and self-regarding Eustace, the owner of Bunnett’s Brewery. The brewer had lost his fox-terrier dog, drowned and consumed in a pressure vat. He wants Nigel to find out how he dog got into the vat and reluctantly agrees to pay the detective’s minimum fee - £25 guineas retaining fee ad a refresher of £5 guineas a day. After this Mr Bunnett himself disappears, bits of a human body are found, clues accumulate and there is another murder before Nigel is able to tell Dorset police exactly what happened.
The next Blake book, The Beast Must Die (1938), has been picked by several critics as the best of all. It proved a best seller in the USA and in Britain was a commercial success bettered only by A Question of Proof and The Case of the Abominable Snowman (1941). It was also the only Blake adapted for the cinema in the distinguished and the French shape of Claude Chabrol’s Que La Bete Meure (1969).
It is a book, more personal than earlier Blakes, sparked by seeing me in
danger of being run over by a car. In the story a Frank Cairnes, better known as the popular detective writer Felix Lane, is the bereaved father who had seen his six-year-old son Martin killed by a hit and run driver near their Cheltenham home. He is bent on vengeance made clear on page one. “I am going to kill a man”, he begins his diary entry for 20 June 1937, as he recovers from a “nervous breakdown” at Blake’s favourite seaside resort - Lyme Regis. Dorset. “I don’t know his name, I don’t know where he lives, I have no idea what he looks like but I am going to find him and kill him...”
A large chunk of the book is given to Felix Lane’s diary in the two months since the death of his son. Characters adapted from Gloucestershire friends and
neighbours in the lives of CDL and Mary appear and are brushed away. There is even a set piece on a river, reflecting the boating skills he developed through his sailing dinghy played with on the Severn. The story is half over when a curtain is opened to see “Nigel Strangeways seated in an armchair in the London, flat to which he and Georgia had moved after their marriage, two years ago”. Soon the detective hears how by lucky chance Felix found the killer driver and planned to drown him in the river, a plan foiled when the killer driver is poisoned by another enemy. Felix quickly becomes chief suspect and it is down to Nigel to discover who really dunit and enable Felix to sail his dinghy out of police range into Lyme Bay, climb overboard and so give himself the “clean ending” he had long craved.
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