Cold, Steely Logic: "A Problem in White" (1949) by Nicholas Blake

Cecil Day-Lewis was a former schoolteacher, full-time writer and British Poet Laureate, from 1968 until 1972, whose poetic pursuits and income were financed and supplemented by "Nicholas Blake" – a penname created to keep his literary career separate from his detective fiction. However, it was more or less an open secret that the poet Cecil Day-Lewis and the celebrated mystery novelist Nicholas Blake were one and the same person. Between 1935 and 1968, Blake wrote twenty detective novels of which sixteen featured his series-characters, Nigel Strangeways. I personally enjoyed the earlier, purer detective novels ("blend of steely logic and pure moonshine") like A Question of Proof (1935), Thou Shell of Death (1936), There's Trouble Brewing (1937) and the somewhat latish Head of a Traveller (1949), but Blake has never been discussed on this blog. So time to remedy that oversight beginning with one of his seasonal short detective stories.

"A Problem in White" originally appeared in the February, 1949, issue of The Strand Magazine under the title "The Snow Line" and reprinted as "A Study in White" in the May, 1949, issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. That title change was very likely the handiwork of Fredric Dannay and it stuck as it appeared under that title in numerous anthologies ranging from Anthony Boucher's The Quintessence of Queen (1962), Eleanor Sullivan's Fifty Years of the Best from Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (1991) and Peter Haining's Great Irish Detective Stories (1993). It first appeared under its current title in Jack Adrian's Crime at Christmas: A Seasonal Box of Murderous Delights (1988) and most recently in Martin Edwards' Silent Nights: Christmas Mysteries (2015). It seems this short story enjoyed most of its success in the United States and particular within the pages of the EQ magazine and assorted anthologies. And not wholly without reason.

Blake's "A Problem in White" is basically the type of "Problem in Deduction" short story that can be found in Queen's Q.B.I. (1955) and Q.E.D. (1968). A pure puzzle ending the story with a challenge to the reader, "who did the Inspector arrest for the murder," pointing out "Nicholas Blake placed eight clues to the killer's identity in the text," two major clues and six minor clues, covering the who, why and how – inviting the reader to go over the story or skip to the end of the book ("where all is revealed").

The story opens with six strangers, Henry Stansfield, Arthur J. Kilmington, Percy Dukes, Irving McDonald, Inez Blake and Mrs. Grant, sharing a railway compartment while traveling through a blizzard. While the snow swirling and growing outside, the passengers discuss a robbery that had taken place on that very train just a month ago. At the time, the train "was carrying some of the extra Christmas mail" and the "bags just disappeared, somewhere between Lancaster and Carlisle." Some of the passengers appear to know more about the robbery than they should or could know. But then the train is derailed and stranded in a snowdrift. Some of the passengers set off for the village, "whose lights twinkled like frost in the far distance," two miles to the north-east, but one of them is brutally murdered along the way ("...nostrils were caked thick with snow, which had frozen solid in them, and snow had been rammed tight into his mouth..."). The story ends with the police inspector entering to compartment "to make an arrest on the charge of wilful murder" followed by the Ellery Queen-style challenge to the reader. So it's up to the reader to put together the pieces, but is it a solvable puzzle? Absolutely!

"A Problem in White" is an unvarnished detective story. There are no narrative tricks or slippery red herrings to misdirect the genre savvy mystery reader. No obstacles and side-puzzles like locked rooms or cryptic dying messages. Just posing a simple, straightforward problem of a train robbery and subsequent murder with enough clues strewn throughout to work out the solution. You don't have to be a genre savvy mystery reader to do it. Everyone who can put two-and-two together can do it. Only thing muddling the clarity of the story is Blake referring to the characters by both their names and descriptions ("Expansive Man," "Deep Chap," "Forward Piece," "Comfortable Body," "The Flash Card" and "The Fusspot"), which made some of the characters blend together during the first few pages. Something that was not necessary for the story or plot, but other than that, a solid and recommendable piece of detective fiction. And comes particularly recommended to fans of Ellery Queen.

I might return to Nicholas Blake sometime this month. After all, two of his Nigel Strangeways novels take place around Christmastime during a white December.

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