Thou Shell of Death (1936) by Nicholas Blake

Last time, I reviewed a snowy, seasonal short story, "A Problem in White" (1949), written by the British Poet Laureate, Cecil Day-Lewis, who had a second literary career as the detective novelist "Nicholas Blake" – a penname that appeared on twenty novels and a handful of short stories. "A Problem in White" proved to be a good, solid detective story that convinced me to return to Blake's novels sooner rather than later. I decided to revisit the Rue Morgue Press edition of Blake's second, Christmas-themed mystery novel.

Thou Shell of Death (1936), alternatively published as Shell of Death, is the second novel in the Nigel Strangeways series. After a brief stint at Oxford, Strangeways turned his mind to the study of crime and doing "a certain amount of work as a private inquiry agent" ("the only profession left... which gave scope for good manners and scientific curiosity"). So it certainly helps that his uncle and boyhood guardian is the Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard.

Sir John Strangeways potentially has a case for his nephew involving a very famous person, Fergus O'Brien, who appeared out of obscurity in 1915 when he joined up in London to become a legendary, World War I flying ace – a "daredevil, harum-scarum pilot" who was never shot down ("the Germans were quite convinced he had a charmed life"). A reputation that continued to grow after the war with a solo flight in an obsolete machine to Australia and an "incredible exploit" in Afghanistan "when he took a whole native fort single-handed," until it had "swelled up to make a really gigantic mythical figure of him." A true legend of his time, but O'Brien recently retired from public life and buried himself in the English countryside. Someone is targeting the bold aviator with anonymous, dramatically worded letters promising Hell won't be waiting much longer for his arrival and has penciled in his impending murder for Boxing Day ("like Good King Wenceslas, you will go out on the Feast of Stephen"). Fergus O'Brien asks Sir John to send his detective nephew down to Dower House under the guise of a house guest over Christmas.

There's an interesting gathering of guests staying at Dower House. Georgia Cavendish, a well-known explorer, who was rescued by O'Brien when her small expedition into the Libyan Desert (trying to find the site of Zerzura, "the lost oasis") ran into some serious trouble. She has been closely-linked with him ever since. Edward Cavendish is her pompous, but decent, elderly brother who's "something in the city" and "looks like a churchwarden." Lucilla Thrale is a "professional peach" and "blonde as a Nazi's dream, full-figured," who has been involved with both Edward Cavendish and Fergus O'Brien. Cyril Knott-Sloman was "quite a panjandrum in the war" who currently runs a dubious roadhouse near London. Philip Starling is a don at All Saints, authority on Homeric civilization and one of Nigel's instructors. Lastly, Arthur Bellamy, late aircraftman and heavyweight champion of the R.A.F., who's O'Brien's loyal manservant. Nigel finds that the most striking personality is that of his host and "he had come to feel for O'Brien an affection and deep respect he had never felt for anyone but his uncle before." That makes what happens next all the more tragic.

The former flying ace confides in Nigel that on Christmas night, after pretending to go to bed, he intends to crawl out of the window, jump on the veranda roof and spend the night in the garden hut – where he should be save for the night ("...I'll lock meself up..."). When the household wakes up the next day, they discover Fergus O'Brien's dead in the garden hut with a revolver lying beside his right hand and bullet wound to the chest. The garden door is unlocked, but only "a single track of footprints straight from the veranda to the hut." So this is either an unlikely suicide or an impossible murder.

Thou Shell of Death has many superb qualities as a true Golden Age detective novel and will get to them in a moment, but, as the resident pulp monger with locked rooms on the brain, I need to the touch upon the unconventionally way in which Blake tackled the impossible crimes. Yes, Thou Shell of Death has two with the second one cleverly hidden in plain sight.

First of all, the problem of the footprints is only a small part of the puzzle with a routine solution and Nigel makes short work of its, but even then the footprints continue to present a treacherous pitfalls, if you think you can put a name to that method. Not so routine is that second, cleverly hidden impossibility that's not revealed until the final chapter. A very rare, but great, example of the (SPOILER/ROT13) fbzrjung pbagragvbhf vzcbffvoyr nyvov shysvyyvat nyy zl erdhverzragf gb or pbhagrq nf bar, which doubled as the linchpin brilliantly holding this humdinger of a detective story together. So a very unconventional, but very successful, approach to the impossible crime story that deserves some more recognition than it has received over the decades. Robert Adey overlooked it in Locked Room Murders (1991) and never appeared on any of the locked room mystery best-of lists. There is, however, more to Thou Shell of Death than those two expertly handled impossible crimes.

Nigel remarks, to Superintendent Bleakley, that they "shan't get to the bottom of it all" until "we've found out a great deal more about O'Brien" as it's he “who is the real mystery man" – not the murderer. That's easier said than done when even the newspapers and tabloids were failed in digging up anything about his past before 1915. A problem not made less difficult when the pool of suspects begins to thin out a little without getting them any closer to the murderer. I don't think it's a spoiler at this point that Georgia Cavendish is the future Mrs. Nigel Strangeways and falling in love always spell trouble. Another character is carted off page following a near fatal attack and stays there for the remainder of the story, while another potential suspect is poisoned with an ingenious little trick. Just like the snowy footprints, the poisoning-trick is quickly demolished, but knowing the mechanics behind the trick only touches the truth's surface. There's something underneath that's a lot harder to spot.

I remember enjoying Blake's earlier novels and how the first two Rue Morgue Press reprints had me scurrying for the then out-of-print There's Trouble Brewing (1937), The Beast Must Die (1938), The Case of the Abominable Snowman (1941) and Head of a Traveller (1949). I didn't remember Blake being this good nor possessing the kind of qualities associated with greats like Anthony Berkeley, Christianna Brand, John Dickson Carr and Agatha Christie. Throughout the story, Blake brazenly alludes, hints and nods at the truth with more than a fair helping of psychological and physical clues. All building towards the presentation and demolishment of the false-solution, before revealing what really happened. Remembering bits and pieces of the solution, I could only sit back and admire how the whole scheme was rigged up and paraded in front of the reader, which banked with full confidence on a grand deception designed to lead the reader down the proverbial garden path. That kind of confidence in the plot, story, characters and a cavalier attitude towards sharing clues is what separated Carr, Christie and Brand from their contemporaries as masters of their craft. Apparently, Blake possessed a similar talent for crafting the classical detective story.

There is, however, one difference between Blake and a Carr or Christie. Blake described his own detective stories as a "blend of steely logic and pure moonshine," which perfectly described Thou Shell of Death, because the underlying truth and solution is pure moonshine. Some have dismissed parts of it as sheer mad hattery and the dramatic ending would not have been half as credible, despite the shrewd plotting, had it not been so well-written or the characters so well drawn. A perfectly balanced detective novel with an ingeniously-contrived plot and human touch to the characters. Even certain excesses of the plot and characterization (the pure moonshine or mad hattery) go hand-in-hand in perfect harmony. So it made it everything much more credible than it perhaps any right to be. After all, the crux of the story is something that really belonged on the pages of an old melodrama. So, everything put together, Thou Shell of Death is so much more than a mere parody, or subversion, of the British country house mystery – unlike the pure moonshine of Gladys Mitchell's The Longer Bodies (1930) and Michel Innes' What Happened at Hazelwood (1946). Thou Shell of Death is a detective story proper that I would probably place alongside or even above Hercule Poirot's Christmas (1938) as one of the best Christmas mysteries the traditional detective produced. I don't think I can praise it any higher than that.

In short, Thou Shell of Death is an overlooked masterpiece hiding in plain sight. So expect more Blake in 2024 as now need to get those unread Strangeways novel or return to A Question of Proof or Head of a Traveller.


  1. Well said! Thou Shell of Death was the first Nicholas Blake I read; my jaw dropped at the end.

    Overlooked, though? Overshadowed by Beast, certainly, but this is still considered one of Blake's major works.

    Although Blake doesn't get enough appreciation; he's unquestionably one of the best - classically proportioned whodunnits with style, characterisation, and atmosphere.

    The Revenger's Tragedy is grand - it has one of the best opening speeches in theatre, too.

    1. Overlooked, overshadowed or simply underappreciated. We can agree Thou Shell of Death has not received the recognition it deserves.

      By the way, do you have any recommendations? The unread titles on the pile are The Dreadful Hollow, The Whisper in the Gloom, End of Chapter, The Worm of Death and The Morning After Death. Or perhaps revisit A Question of Proof or Head of a Traveller first? I vaguely recall likening Head of a Traveller to Michael Innes' Lament of a Maker.

  2. The Dreadful Hollow: A good, well-constructed village poison pen mystery, but I spotted the murderer.

    The Whisper in the Gloom: A fun thriller, a bit like Hitchcock's Man Who Knew Too Much; introduces Clare Massinger.

    End of Chapter: Workmanlike.

    The Worm of Death: Rather good - Christiean family in London docklands; murderer not very surprising, though.

    The Morning After Death: Blake has a Carrian second adolescence.

    1. Thanks! The Dreadful Hollow is going to be moved up the pile.

  3. Thanks for your review, which triggered me to grab this out of the big TBR pile. I just finished this and while Thou Shell of Death wasn't very Christmassy, I did enjoy my first time reading Nicholas Blake.

    Clearly Cecil Day-Lewis' intelligence and literary background shines throughout his prose. I don't have his body of knowledge so didn't understand always his referent and literary allusions. That didn't diminish the book for me though.

    You're right that the impossibilities serve a minor part of the plot, but each one as well as Strangeway's unraveling of O'Brien's past held my attention and kept the story moving.

    I will return to Blake in the future and have Abominable Snowman, Widow's Cruise and Beast Must Die also on the big pile.