Has sandy coloured hair. Faultless verbal memory = greatest strength. Eats heartily. Is fairly clumsy. Incurably inquisitive. Borderline kleptomaniac (will pocket objects of interest). Forgetful (will forget said pocketed objects of interest). Feels fear. Has a colonial bent of mind. Not a charlatan, thanks to inherent bumbling nature, but refers to self as an exhibitionist nonetheless. Very businesslike about money (reminds one of the “moral code”). Has an ostrich stride. Preoccupied air. Very together in times of crisis. Untidy. Will ash on your very nice carpet and place a cup of tea precariously on the edges of things. Married by 1937. Gets his ass taken fairly often. At one point, feels an irresistible impulse to burst into tears.
I was not too blown away by this one (did Thou Shell of Death raise expectations too high?). The humour here is sporadic, Nigel a tad too amateurish, and the resolution a little predictable. The problem with the author harping upon Nigel’s faultless verbal memory is that the reader is going to catch on at some point. That said, it is still a very good read, the chief delight being Mr. Grimshaw, whose ears wiggle "molto agitato", who utters delightful incomprehensibles like "hum-mum-chumble-yum." Blake is a cunning, judicious writer willing to forego all manner of vocabulary (on occasion) to great comic effect. Another instance is when Mr. Barnes "does complicated things with his eyebrows." Revolving ears (and eyebrows that do complicated things) are not to be found in most novels of this kind. Humour is, therefore, the chief delight in reading Nicholas Blake, and I find myself distracted from everything else.
There is also perhaps a sort of formula in his novels, but I won’t say more on the subject until I’ve read another one (which will be The Beast Must Die).
Now from the film noir lens:
The comedy increases as the story wears on and reaches its highest point with the sudden introduction of Lily Barnes, whose part-Jean Harlow part-Greta Garbo appearance momentarily knocks the sandy colour out of Nigel’s hair. She is very briefly, and quite memorably, a femme fatale (I hope this isn’t just me obsessively looking at everything as having some cause-effect relationship with film noir). The primary reason I made this connection is because of the setting — a parlour so hot and overcrowded with ferns that it gives the impression of a tropical forest (does this not remind one of The Big Sleep?). The secondary reason is, of course, Lily herself. An extract from her introduction:
"Lily Barnes wore an old raincoat - and nothing between it and the ‘best Sunday undies,’ Nigel suspected."
She does not speak; she moos. By the time he’s leaving, Nigel finds himself telling her he’s married.
Delightful, humorous and bursting with allusions. The solution rests on sound literary knowledge. Nigel Strangeways is a romantic, slightly flawed, erudite and rather mischievous private investigator (an ‘amateur,’ as he calls himself sometimes), with a perfect verbal memory. He falls asleep when he should not, falls in love with the prime suspect, loves a hearty meal. A likable fellow, prone to comedy, much like Charles Unwin from The Manual of Detection. Importantly, he is not a misogynist. Yes, folks. Misogynist, not.
The most important literary allusion is, of course, to The Revenger’s Tragedy. In the book, the quotes from the play are attributed to Cyril Tourneur, while I am led to believe that the correct reference ought to have been to Thomas Middleton. There’s a bit of confusion on this point, and not having read the play, I will say no more.
But apart from the express references in the book itself, I was struck by certain points of similarity between said book and The Rules of the Game, a (legendary) 1939 French film by Jean Renoir. One day, I will investigate these similarities to understand how they came to be, but it is entirely possible that these similarities are, in fact, mere coincidences. In both works: (a) we are exposed to the partying ways of upper-class individuals in the 1930s; (b) a man who can fly a plane is shot; and (c) a man trying to break up with his mistress invites said mistress to a retreat in a country estate. I think these connections are owed to some rather standardized plot elements derived from the “literature of the past.” If there are similarities to The Rules of the Game, then perhaps I should drag Gosford Park into my investigation as well. But this is all fodder for another day that I’d like to waste in this delicious, pointless exercise.
Thou Shell of Death is a very good (standalone) read. In my detective-fiction reading line-up this was preceded by The Murders in the Rue Morgue, which was charlatanerie at its best, even though Poe’s narrator would like us to believe otherwise. If there were ever a human pyramid of Likable Non-Charlatan Detectives, Nigel Strangeways’ sandy-coloured hair would be blowing in a breeze quite near the top.