read in March
|original 1943 cover from Wikipedia|
read in March
|original 1943 cover from Wikipedia|
|original 1962 cover, from Goodreads|
|original 1965 cover, from Amazon|
|from Black Past|
Detective Inspector Andrew MacAndrew Elliot of Scotland Yard's CID has been assigned to look into a case in the village of Sodbury Cross, where someone has been poisoning chocolates in Mrs. Terry's tobacco-and-sweet shop, somehow substituting strychnine-laced confections for the chocolate creams kept on the shop's counter. Sadly, eight year-old Frankie Dell died after he'd "wolfed down the lot" he'd bought, while the children of another family and their "maidservant" who had also picked up a half pound of the tainted chocolates became very ill. The young niece of local businessman Marcus Chesney, Marjorie Wills (for reasons I won't go into here), is the main suspect. As Elliot begins to work with the local police on that case, word arrives that Marcus Chesney is dead. After arriving at the Chesney home, the detectives hear a fantastic story: as it happened, Chesney's murder not only occurred in front of a small group of people, but that
"every one of 'em saw the murderer and followed every move he made."
Even more surprising is that "they can't agree on anything that happened."
What comes next is unlike anything I've ever read before.
Chesney, who has as a hobby "the study of crime," had earlier invited his niece, her fiancé George Harding, his brother Joe and a friend of theirs, a professor Ingram, to a "performance," a sort of "psychological test" to start at midnight. His helper Wilbur Emmet, one of the men who worked at the Chesney home, was to have a role in this scene, and after it was over, Chesney would have a list of questions that the participants were to answer, based on what they'd seen. George was to film the entire thing as well. What happens next went according to plan, except for the fact that Chesney was murdered and Emmet was found severely wounded outside next to a bundle of clothing and other props used during Chesney's little game. The problem is that the potential suspects were all together at the time, never out of sight of one another. When another murder occurs, a rather mystified Elliot turns to Dr. Fell, who is staying in a hotel in nearby Bath, enlisting his help to solve this rather baffling crime.
I mentioned earlier that the original UK title, The Black Spectacles, turns out to be more appropriate than its American counterpart. In a letter from Marcus Chesney written earlier to Fell which he doesn't hand over right away to the police, Chesney had noted the following:
"All witnesses, metaphorically, wear black spectacles. They can neither see clearly, nor interpret what they see in the proper colours. They do not know what goes on on the stage, still less what goes on in the audience. Show them a black-and-white record of it afterwards, and they will believe you; but even then they will be unable to interpret what they see."
As Dr. Fell says before he goes off to observe George's film record of that strange night, "that, together with what we are going to see and hear to-night, should complete our case."
|Original 1938 UK edition. Photo from John Atkinson Fine and Rare Books|
"I'm 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 ..."
Writing the first part of this book as Cairnes' diary is a move of sheer genius on the author's part, as there is no way anyone will put the book down at that point. Aside from Cairnes' desire for revenge, and his plans to "kill a man," just some nine days later we discover that he has slowly pieced together the identity of the driver as well as the woman in the car at the time. It's no spoiler to reveal that Cairnes now has his sights set on George Rattery (it's right there on the back-cover blurb), who lives with his wife, his son and his mother in Gloucestershire. Eventually he meets Rattery, and not too long afterwards has ingratiated his way into the Rattery home as Felix Lane, where he has devised (and detailed) the perfect method of exacting his revenge, with the added bonus of making George's death look like an accident. One would think that knowing what's going to happen would not leave much room for surprise, but the author is not quite finished with his reader yet. After a shift in viewpoint that begins part two, it seems that not only is Cairnes' murder attempt thwarted, but later, someone back at the Rattery home has taken it upon himself or herself to finish the job, albeit in a different way. A phone call brings in private detective Nigel Strangeways, who agrees to help Cairnes, as he has now become the prime suspect in the eyes of the police even though he swears he is innocent.
Not one more word of plot shall pass my lips (okay, in this case my fingertips) but I will say that my first venture into the mind of Nicholas Blake has been a successful one. Not only is it worthy of my picky inner armchair-detective self, but it also offers an insightful character study as well as the ingenious use of literary references that clicked into place in my head only after finishing the book. Definitely not your typical 1930s, golden-age mystery, and it's one I can most certainly recommend. I loved Georgia Strangeways; I'll now have to backtrack and go back to book number one to find out more about Nigel.
My advice: do NOT read reviews of this book that want to take you to the big reveal. You'll kick yourself if you do, trust me.