Nicholas Blake was the pseudonym of Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis who was born in Ireland in 1904 and raised in London after his mother’s death in 1906. He initially worked as a teacher to supplement his income from his poetry writing, but he published his first Nigel Strangeways novel, A Question of Proof, in 1935. Blake went on to write a further 19 crime novels, all but four of which featured Nigel Strangeways.
Strangeways was shaped in the image of Day-Lewis’ fellow poet and friend W H Auden, and the author drew inspiration from other areas of his life for characters, setting, and plot as well. During WWII, he worked as a publications editor in the Ministry of Information which he later used as the basis for the Ministry of Morale in Minute for Murder.
Unlike with other detective series, the reader does get quite a bit out of reading the Strangeways series in order. There’s an obvious story arc throughout the series, so picking up one of the later books may spoil one of the previous mysteries. In some instances, you can see the progression from the investigator’s life being inspired by Auden to taking on pieces of Day-Lewis’s own life.
Nigel Strangeways is a character you feel like you become friends with as you follow his growth and change throughout the stories — which is what makes these mysteries so captivating.
We know taking on an entire series can be a daunting task, though, so if you’re keen to start with just a few before you dive into the full Strangeways world, we suggest these three:
Why not introduce yourself to Nigel Strangeways with the book that introduced Strangeways to the world? A Question of Proof is the perfect place to start because it is, in fact, the start of it all. The first title in the Nigel Strangeways Mysteries follows Michael Evans — an English teacher who is entwined in a love affair with the headmaster’s wife. The same afternoon Michael engages in a haystack rendezvous during School Sports day, a young student is found strangled in the very same place. All evidence points to Michael as the killer, so he calls upon his old friend Nigel Strangeways — an aspiring investigator at this point — to help clear his name. A Question of Proof is the best way to glean the basics of the character who becomes the face of Blake’s entire mystery series.
Although it’s the seventh title in the series, The Corpse in the Snowman is a festive option to pick up if you’re looking for a Christmastime mystery. Nigel and Georgia Strangeways are just looking for a cosy place to hunker down it when they to Easterham Manor, but instead they end up confronted with a haunted room, a possessed cat, and the enigmatic Elizabeth Restorick. When suspicious circumstances surrounding Elizabeth’s suicide are discovered, Nigel must abandon his attempt at a relaxing holiday and dive into Elizabeth’s past to solve the mystery of her death. The Corpse in the Snowman works as a stand-alone read — quite like a TV holiday special.
The Dreadful Hollow also finds Nigel out of London but places him right in the middle of the gossipy and accusatory town of Prior’s Umborne. A fleet of secret-spilling letters are circulated around town, leaving one man driven to suicide and businessman Sir Archibald Blick desperate for the assistance of Private Investigator Strangeways. Nigel must work quickly to untangle a web of family secrets and rivalry, love triangles and ultimatums before old grudges claim more lives. The Dreadful Hollow is the 10th title in the series and just about the last one you can get away with reading without any spoilers.
The Nigel Strangeways Mysteries are best digested when read in the order that Blake intended, but if you’re going to pick three out of the bunch, we think these are great places to start!
As always, thank you for reading, and be sure to tweet us @AgoraBooksLDN with your favourite title in the Nigel Strangeways Mysteries!