Tuesday, 5 September 2000

Nicholas Blake: The Beast Must Die (1938)

Edition: Pan, 1999
Review number: 599

A clever crime novel for its time by Poet Laureate, C. Day Lewis, The Beast Must Die is now a little obvious. This is partly because it anticipates some of the ways in which detective fiction has gone on to develop. It has one central character, Frank Cairns, and is a psychological study of a murder, like Malice Aforethought, though it seems to me that it succeeds as an analysis of the reasons for murder where that novel fails.

The novel is divided into four parts, the first and longest of which is a diary kept by Cairns from the day that he decides to kill. This decision is taken as he is mourning the death of his young son, killed by a hit and run driver; this man, who has destroyed Cairns' life, is to be the victim. First Cairns has to succeed in a task which has baffled the police, and discover the identity of the driver; then he has to get to know him so that he can get close enough to kill him. All this is recorded in the diary, and then, just as the murder is to take place, the victim (thoroughly unpleasant bully George Rattery) reveals that he has found the hidden diary and sent it to his solicitors. When Rattery is poisoned the same day, Cairns is of course suspected, and calls in the amateur detective Nigel Strangeways (who appears in several Nicholas Blake novels) to help him clear his name.

As well as the psychological portrait of Cairns, the novel also strays into unusual territory for a crime novel, as it examines the possible ethical justifications for murder. The reader's sympathy is with Cairns all the way through, particularly after the killer of his son is revealed to be such an unpleasant person, tyrannising his cowed wife and sensitive son. (The scales are thus loaded in favour of the murderer in a not too subtle way, but that doesn't really matter.) Blake seriously manages to get the reader wondering whether 'the beast must die' rather than to be allowed to make the lives of those around him totally miserable.

The Beast Must Die is perhaps slightly overpowered as a crime novel by the weight of its more literary themes. It could perhaps do with being a bit longer - and there are not many novels of which that could be said.

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