‘The Beast Must Die’ has one of the best opening paragraphs to a murder mystery that I’ve ever read:
‘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 …’
It’s a clever, surprising and original start to a clever, surprising and original novel.
The man writing the entry that opens what is his ‘murder diary’ is Frank Cairnes. Frank is seeking to revenge the hit-and-run death of his young son on the man who was driving the car, the man that hit his son on a quiet road in a small village and left him to die.
Frank is a comfortably off widower, who took up writing detective stories to relieve the boredom of his early retirement, turned out to be quite good at it and now earns a living from it. Like the author of ‘The Beast Must Die’, our hero writes under non de plume and refuses to allow his real identity to be revealed. He determines to use his detective novel writing skills and the mask of his nom de plume to find the killer and kill him in a way that makes the death look accidental.
The first forty per cent of the book is in the form of Frank’s murder diary, in which he explains how he found the driver’s identity, how he got close to him and how he intends to kill him. It’s cold-blooded, credibly, gripping stuff.
In the second part of the book, the perspective changes and we see Frank from a distance, attempting to carry out his plan. By this point, it’s fascinating to see him as others see him. He seems suddenly smaller, more vulnerable and less threatening. Then we get the first surprise when things don’t go as our hero planned. This is beautifully done and left me wondering what on earth could happen next.
I should have seen it coming of course, as this is a murder novel with Nigel Strangeways in it, but a murder happens next, one that throws the whole story on its head again.
Finally, we get to see Nigel Strangeways at work, tugging at facts and impressions, getting to know the people, theorising with his wife who he’s brought along ostensibly because she’s more approachable than him but I think, rather charmingly, she’s really there because he wants to be at her side. The who-did-it-and-how? investigation that follows is well done, giving new perspectives on characters that we’ve previously only seen through Frank’s eyes in his diary and providing some intriguing suspects and a web of alibis.
The ending is another surprise. One of those forehead-slapping of-course-it-is surprises that I enjoy kicking myself for not having seen.
All in all, it was a very entertaining read and a great example of a Golden Age mystery. Although this was written in 1938, it felt fresh and modern. It also works as a standalone novel.
I strongly advise avoiding the audiobook version of this novel. The narrator, Kris Dyer, who sadly is the narrator for the entire series, delivers a terrible performance. He takes muscular prose and turns it into a limp-wristed luvvy-fest filled with inappropriate pauses and stresses that ignore the texture of the text and mutilate its rhythm. I sent my audiobook back.