C(ecil) Day Lewis (1904-1972) is perhaps best known today as the father of actor Daniel Day Lewis, but he was also one of the most noted British poets of the 20th century. (Lewis was actually Anglo-Irish -- he was born in Ballintubbert, Ireland) -- but identified more closely with Britain, especially once Ireland tacitly supported Adolph Hitler.) He published about three dozen books of his own poetry, wrote over a dozen books of criticism, and edited over a dozen poetry anthologies. And, reportedly, began writing mystery novels to pay for repairing a leaky roof. Mystery fans should put up a shrine to that roof.
All of his mysteries were published under the pseudonym "Nicholas Blake."Sixteen of the twenty Blake mystery novels featured Nigel Strangeways, Oxford graduate and amateur detective, one of no particular occupation or means of living. The Strangeway novels walk a fine line between adventure and detection. The plots are tricky and varied, the murders vile, and the stakes are high. Over his thirty-plus year career, Stangeways ages and matures much in the way his author did. Each book is solidly set in its time, with topical references and psychological theories of the day; leftist characters become less palatable (Day was an avowed Communist and, like many other intellectuals of the day, soon became disillusioned with the whole thing). Strangeways meets his wife in the second book of the series only to lose her later in a German bombing. The loss affects him deeply although later in the series he is able to find happiness with another woman.
The Strangeway books are classic Golden Age British mysteries, laced with literary references -- although not enough to detract from the plot. The books are immensely readable and typically (and atypically British). Nicholas Blake is in a league with such worthies as Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, and Dorothy L. Sayers.
Lewis never looked down at the mystery field and took as much care crafting these stories as he did his other works. And Lewis remains the only mystery writer to be named Poet Laureate of England.
The Strangeway books:
- A Question of Proof (1935)
- Thou Shell of Death (1936, also published as Shell of Death)
- There's Trouble Brewing (1937)
- The Beast Must Die (1938)
- The Smiler with a Knife (1938)
- Malice in Wonderland (1940; also published as The Summer Camp Mystery and as Malice with Murder)
- The Case of the Abominable Snowman (1941; also published as The Corpse in the Snowman)
- Minute for Murder (1948)
- Head of a Traveller (1949)
- The Dreadful Hollow (1953)
- The Whisper in the Gloom (1954; also published as Catch and Kill)
- End of Chapter (1957)
- The Widow's Cruise (1959)
- The Worm of Death (1961)
- The Sad Variety (1964)
- The Morning After Death (1966)
Try one. I think you'll enjoy it.