“A Question Of Proof – Nigel Strangeways #1” by Nicholas Blake

An amusing, unconventional Golden Age detective story that’s stronger on descriptive language and acute observation than on plot.

I picked up “A Question Of Proof after reading a discussion on Themis’ blog where it emerged that Nicholas Blake and C Day Lewis were the same man.

I couldn’t pass up on the opportunity to read a detective story by a Poet Laureate, so I listened to the audiobook sample. I was captured by the delicious language, slightly archaic to the modern ear but razor-sharp, and the use of the narrator in a raconteur / Greek chorus mode. The text sparkled. I was hooked.

Written in 1935, the story is set in a boy’s Prep School, where a master, engaged in a dalliance with the Headmaster’s wife, finds himself the prime suspect for the murder of an unpopular student. In a reflexive act of self-preservation, the master invites his bright-but-odd friend, Nigel Strangeways, to come and look into the case and clear the master’s name.

Strangeways is a wonderful creation and the main reason for reading the book. He is a gentle, witty, effortlessly erudite man who is unable either to abstain from detection or to feel fully confident that it’s the sort of thing a gentleman should do.

When Strangeways arrives to investigate the crime, he seems to set about doing so by deconstructing the workings of a Public School with a sharpness that borders on vivisection while being completely free from malice.

Strangeways is fully aware of the nuances of class and the barriers to communication that they create. He understands the minds of prep-school boys, sent away from parents and their homes from as young as five-years-old and raised in a pack with a strict hierarchy and taught to repress the expression of all emotions save only disdain for others and enthusiam for the accomplishments of ones own team.

He uses both of these things to acquire information that is not available to the Inspector investigating the case and to find patterns in the data that would only be apparent to those fully initiated into the strange rituals and magical thinking of staff and boys at an English Prep School.

The plot is not a thing of beauty. It is clever but not entirely plausible. The mode of exposition is clunky and the final reveal lacked both realism and storytelling flair.

But the language, the dialogue, the deep understanding of the oddity that was an English Prep School after World War I and the creation of the inimitable Nigel Strangeways, made “A Question Of Proof” worth reading.

6 thoughts on ““A Question Of Proof – Nigel Strangeways #1” by Nicholas Blake

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