Thursday, August 16, 2018

“The Smiler with the Knife” by Nicholas Blake

Cecil Day-Lewis (1904-1972) was poet laureate of the United Kingdom from 1968 to his death in 1972. He published some 10 collections of poetry, four translations of poetry, three collections of essays, three novels for adults and two for children, a collection of short stories, and an autobiography. (He was also the father of Oscar-winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis.)

During World War II, he worked in Britain’s Ministry of Information as a publications editor. His career also included a five-year teaching stint at Oxford and serving as an editor for a leading publishing house. Under the pseudonym of Nicholas Blake, he wrote 20 crimes novels, 16 of which featured private detective Nigel Strangeways. 

The Smiler with the Knife, published in 1939, is one of the Nigel Strangeways crime novels, except that the hero isn’t Strangeways but his wife Georgia. In fact, Georgia Strangeways anticipates a whole array of resourceful, smart, and tough female detectives we’re far more familiar with today. Nigel’s the detective in the family; Georgia has established a reputation as an explorer and adventurer, a reputation that will serve her well.

Cecil Day-Lewis, aka Nicholas Blake
The Strangeways have bought a house in the country, not terribly far from London. They receive a notice that their hedge needs to be pruned; the local authorities have deemed it to pose a hazard to motorists. Georgia grabs the shears and starts chopping away. And then she and Nigel spit a locket in the grass. That locket will lead Georgia into a conspiracy by English Nazi sympathizers to create unrest and havoc, with the aim of taking over before that Churchill crowd gets too powerful.

Georgia and Nigel have to fake a separation. She returns to London, while he heads to Oxford. Gradually she comes to enter the orbit of the Nazi sympathizers, discovering an obvious layer and a more hidden layer. She takes risks; she adroitly maneuvers through close calls. And when she’s inevitably discovered, she will prove herself a formidable rival.

The Smiler with the Knife is a Nigel Strangeways crime novel, but it’s his wife who’s the star. And she well deserves the credit.  

Photograph: A road in Norfolk, where the Strangeways have their cottage.

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