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Top mysteries challenge review: The Beast Must Die by Nicholas Blake

Two interesting facts about the author: Nicholas Blake was the pseudonym of Cecil Day Lewis who was Britain’s poet laureate from 1968 to 1972, and he was actor Daniel Day-Lewis’s father.

Neither fact has any bearing on the following review – I just happen to like trivia.

Year of publication: 1938
Genre: Mystery
Type of investigator: Amateur sleuth
Setting & time: Gloucestershire, UK; 1930s contemporary

Full of grief for his son, killed by a hit-and-run driver, mystery writer Frank Cairnes hatches a plan to track down the driver and murder him, writing his plan down in his diary. A coincidence gives him a clue to the identity of the driver and under the pseudonym he uses for his detective writing he manages to get an introduction to the man, but he can not be sure he is the driver. When the man is murdered, Cairnes seeks the help of amateur sleuth Nigel Strangeways to prove his innocence, the incriminating diary having fallen into the hands of the police.

This story is told by two narrators: the prime murder suspect himself, in a first-person diary leading up to the murder, and a third-person omniscient narrator who tells the remainder of the story, first briefly from the outside and then exclusively from the point of view of sleuth Nigel Strangeways. It is then up to the reader to decide/discover if the first-person narrative is a reliable or unreliable one. The reader is on an even footing with Nigel and the police the whole time, knows all they know and has the same opportunity to solve the case. Some may succeed ahead of them and some may not, for the plot is fiendishly clever and twisted, in the puzzle plot tradition.

Blake is a bit prone to using stereotypes, e.g. the downtrodden wife and the proud old matriarch, which is a bit annoying, but that can be forgiven when the plotting is as good as it is here. Only one thing, besides the stereotypes, marred my reading pleasure: it has the ending that I loathe, for which I withdraw 1/2 point from it.

Rating: A brilliant classic puzzle plot mystery. 4 1/2 stars.

Books left in challenge: 106.


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