‘Thou Shell Of Death’ (Nigel Strangeways #2) by Nicholas Blake

This is an amusing, colourful, slightly quirky, solve-the-puzzle novel that dresses itself rather self-deprecatingly in all the trappings of a Golden Age Mystery: a death at a country house at Christmas, the puzzle of a dead body in a building with only a single set of footprints leading to it and none leading away, an eccentric but insightful detective and a set of larger than life guests drawn from across, and sometimes slightly beyond, the range of socially acceptable dinner companions.

From the beginning it sets a peer to peer relationship with the reader, the implied contract being that ‘We’re all educated chaps here. I know you’ll follow my often humorous classical references and parodies of verse, that you’ll forgive any necessary indelicacies and that, like me, you’ll focus on the finer points of the puzzle in front us’.

And it is an intriguing little puzzle that the author let me figure out just in time to feel smug and not so early as to feel bored.

The mechanics of the killings and the methods of the investigation are both displayed with a deft economy of mental effort, leaving plenty of headspace for the reader to breathe in the atmosphere of the time and savour the array of flamboyant people presented as suspects and or victims.

Published in 1936, the book takes for granted that the middle-aged men in its pages will have had their personalities formed by their experiences in The War. It makes allowances for a wide boy who runs a ‘roadhouse’ (think brothel, not Patrick Swayze) because he was a Brass Hat in the RAF. It builds in both a respect for rank and class and awareness that that respect is a little frayed around the edges. It offers a beautiful woman who no one is particularly shocked to find is a professional mistress and another, less good-looking but much more engaging woman, who sets off across the deserts of North Africa in search of a lost Oasis. It visits an Ireland that is not yet a Republic but has it War of Independence and its Civil War behind it and is different enough from England for our English detective to feel himself very much the foreigner there. Best of all, perhaps it offers is Fergus O’Brien, World War I RAF Ace turned wealthy adventurer. He’s an Irish Airman who foresees his own death, invites Nigel Strangeways to come and investigate it and then leaves him a copy of Yeats’ ‘The Tower’ in his bedroom (alongside the latest Dorothy Sayers) in case he missed the reference.

Although quickly drawn, these were fun people to meet. Combining them with a puzzle that seemed most like a kaleidoscope with clues frequently shifting to form new patterns and you get a book that is far from dull and which also never quite takes itself seriously.

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