The Beast Must Die (1938) – Nicholas Blake

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“I am going to kill a man. 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…” – so begins mystery writer Frank Cairnes’ diary. Already a widower, after his son dies in a hit-and-run accident, he devotes himself to the goal of murdering the man responsible. A chance discovery sets him on the right path, and he soon inveigles his way into his would-be victim’s circle. But the closer he gets to his goal, the greater the risk of his plot being discovered…
Nigel Strangeways investigates the aftermath.

Now, first of all, I went into this book knowing only about the diary setup. Ultimately I think I appreciated this book more for knowing less – which does pose a problem for a review. I’ll do my best to talk about it without spoilers, but if you want to go in completely fresh, then perhaps you can skip to the final verdict at the end of the review.

As you can tell from the first lines, the initial section of the book is an intense one – sort of an inverted mystery. The focus is on the psychology of someone willing to kill, but also, of someone stricken by grief. The shards of Frank Cairnes’ shattered life are shown as he goes about life “as normal” in his village, reflecting on his loss. The atmosphere is one that reminds him always of his son, and the addition of cruel letters and pranks increases the oppression. Frank is at his most sympathetic here during these first anguished weeks. When Frank finds his target and abandons his old life it’s a relief, but given where he’s heading, that relief can’t last.

And indeed tension rises as he stays with his quarry and their dysfunctional family at a house in the countryside. None of these characters are pleasant people, and Frank has by now shown plenty of darkness to his nature. It’s a grim atmosphere. Through Frank’s diary we are kept close to his feelings but also distanced from events, so events in this section lack impact.
Perhaps it’s inevitable then that this can only be paid off with a third-person scene depicting events as they happen. I loved this section, though the change in narration is a little jarring. It helps that it involves sailing – which I love to read about; but in general the tension rises unbearably, helped by the fickle nature of sailing on a blustery day.

Any book with sailing is better than that same book without sailing. Photo credit: Deutshe Photothek.

In the second half (technically part 3), Nigel Strangeways arrives. The arrival of the series detective does generally result in a release in tension and a sense of relief, and this must be the most serious case of that – possibly to the detriment of the book.
You see, poor Strangeways has been working himself too hard, and he decides to vent his exhaustion by writing a cute little mock exam of “classically educated” references. The tone swing from dark psychological thriller to 1066 And All That is whiplash inducing.

How many can you get? The jokes, I mean. Not the answers.

Things do not improve on that front (at least not immediately). Nigel is of course pulled in to investigate anyway, and annoys the inspector by singing a little song while they travel about the village. He’s not the first eccentric detective to do that, nor the last, but here it’s just cloying. Thankfully he does pick up on some clever clues throughout the second half, kinds which I think don’t turn up too often in regular puzzle mysteries.

Once we get in the thick of things the tone does level out a bit more. It’s difficult to maintain the eccentric-amateur attitude in the face of the mess left after the first part, as Nigel becomes more invested in disrupting the toxic atmosphere, and particularly in the wellbeing of young Phil. I remember Nigel working well with the boys in his first appearance, A Question of Proof, and he’s similarly sympathetic here – likely due to Nicholas Blake’s experience as a teacher. Phil is a very well drawn child character, one that’s clearly been harmed by the environment he’s been raised in but still has some childish innocence remaining.

The characters in general are very believable and have layers, but aside from Phil are almost universally unlikeable in some way. One thing I found less believable is the relationship Frank gets into, which to me seemed more like wish fulfilment than anything plausible. On the other hand I thought Nigel and his wife Georgia were a contrast to everyone else, what with actually showing respect, honesty, and affection between each other. Georgia’s concern for Nigel’s health has the potential to become annoying but never does, though it does weaken her character a bit for this to be about 50% of her involvement in the book (she’s overruled, naturally).

The pacing remains excellent for this final section, and Blake is not done with the revelations, which for the most part worked well. The only blemish is that the ending can only be reached by a scene of pure exposition that Nigel goes to seek out – which comes across as a deus ex machina for its lack of connection to the main plot and lack of effort in getting it. I remember the exact same thing happened, in the same way, in Thou Shell of Death. It is at least much less jarring here.

The masterful use of structure, cleverly twisting plot, and interesting clues all mark this out as one of the greats. But the detached, downbeat tone clashes with the eccentric detective, and the final few steps before the ending are achieved in a way that feels disappointingly easy. Overall this a book I admired rather than really enjoyed – but its admirable qualities still make it a must-read.

Other opinions:

At the Scene of the Crime
Fiction Fan’s Blog
The Grandest Game in the World
In Search of the Classic Mystery
The Invisible Event
Jason Half
Mysteries Ahoy
Mystery File
Tipping My Fedora

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