Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Penguin no. 1101: A Question of Proof
by Nicholas Blake

The sun has finally abdicated his noonday eminence, unperturbed by dark deeds, fear, or passion. He looks in at the dusty Common Room, where masters are chatting spasmodically, trying without much success to cover up with commonplace this sudden chasm in their lives. The police have quartered the hayfield now and found whatever was to be found, and the hay cart is carrying its normal load...Tiverton, watching them out of the Day Room window, toys with a mental image of death and life, crime and innocence, black and white. Everyone in the school, for that matter, except for a few very young boys who are so small that the whole affair passes over their heads, finds their eyes drawn magnetically to the windows and what lies beyond them

Sometimes it is the trivial details in these old stories which give you a sense of how much things must have changed. In this case it was the odd story of a pencil found near a murdered child, one which the police seize upon as a possible clue to the identify of the murderer as it bears the initials of its owner. But it was not this desire to emboss a mark of ownership upon something as insignificant as a pencil which was interesting, as much as the fact that this one pencil was so recognisable, and seemed to be the only one its owner had. His recent use of it could be recalled with ease by his colleagues, and these reminiscences could be used to identify a very narrow interval of time during which this specific pencil could have been lost. Here are characters who live in a world where pencils are not abundant, mostly identical, and used at random, but instead are easily distinguished and evidently unforgettable. And no one seemed to think that this was in any way odd.

The pencil in question was owned by Michael Evans, a master at Sudeley Hall preparatory school; the murder victim was an orphaned student named Wemyss, the nephew of the headmaster, and a child so obnoxious that he is loathed by boys and masters alike. His body is found early one evening in one of the hay castles temporarily erected for the afternoon sports carnival. He had been strangled and garrotted, a crime requiring some strength, and there seems little doubt that it has been carried out by an adult. And although the headmaster clings  hopefully to his theory of a passing murderous vagrant, the timing seems to suggest the murderer is someone with a detailed knowledge of school life. Unthinkably, it appears that one of the masters is guilty of this crime.

The masters seem a rather diverse collection of individuals. Cecil Day Lewis (who wrote detective novels using the pseudonym Nicholas Blake) seems to have drawn on his years teaching in preparatory schools to inspire a set of brief sketches of the varied types who are drawn to such teaching. Amongst others there is the ineffectual Sims who never stands up for himself and has no way of maintaining discipline in his class; the bore Gadsby whose best days are behind him and who is now, as he ages, slowly going to seed, and the self-obsessed and ambitious Wrench, a gifted teacher who approaches life with an air of defiance on account of his lower middle-class background. The hierarchy amongst their charges seems mirrored amongst themselves; in both groups the weakest ones tend to be despised.

In common with many Golden Age crime novels, the police superintendent investigating the case is out of his depth, and no match for this unknown University-educated murderer. His thinking is linear and uninspiring: he draws the simplest conclusions, interprets everything in the light of the case he is trying to prove, and accepts any information that suits him just a little too readily. And he is inclined to bully witnesses and congratulate himself on his results, unaware that all he does is amplify the general feeling of hostility towards him. As there is every chance he will arrest the wrong person, Evans suggests sending for his friend Nigel Strangeways, a young man who was recently sent down from Oxford and is now successfully applying his intellect to the solving of crimes.

Strangeways is introduced as tall and angular, brilliant but eccentric, and given to fads, although the only one we witness is an excessive dedication to the day-long consumption of tea (he was apparently recognisable at the time as a portrayal of the poet W.H. Auden). But Strangeways' most unusual characteristic seems an easy affability with which he manages to endear himself to everyone without exception: the boys see him as a romantic figure, the masters accept him as one of their own, and even the police superintendent, who might reasonably feel a competitive animosity, warms to him almost straight away, and even ends up with a grudging respect. This ability to inspire trust and confidence means that people are encouraged to confide in him, and he is thereby provided with every clue he needs. And so Strangeways is confident he knows the murderer's identity very early on, but as the title implies, his problem remains an inability to prove his conjectures.

It is an entertaining story, and Nigel Strangeways makes an endearing sleuth. But it is also interesting in that it gives an insider's view of life within a 1930s preparatory school, with the boys and their secret societies, the masters their disdain for the parents, and a headmaster who identifies himself entirely with his school's success.

5 comments:

  1. This sounds brilliant -- you have made me long to read it. Thanks.

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    1. Hayley's comment below suggests it must now be easy to find, so I hope you enjoy it.

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  2. I really enjoyed this book - vintage have just reissued it and a few others - though sadly Nigel's tea drinking doesn't continue into later books. Perhaps it says a lot about my stationary preferences but the pencil didn't strike me as odd (I've hankered after a nice propelling pencil for a while now).

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    1. I have read that Strangeways changes over the series of books, gradually becoming less like Auden and more like the author, so it will be interesting to read one of the later books and see how he comes across. I hope he retains his appealing qualities - in a book that had much to recommend it, I thought he was the best part.

      (And the term propelling pencil was new to me, and I had to look it up. They certainly sell pencils like that over here, but I have no idea what we call them, which probably says something about my stationary preferences.)

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  3. Does sound really interesting! I love reading books published during these times just to see how much things have changed over the years :)

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