The Dreadful Hollow (1953) by Nicholas Blake

In December, I revisited the seasonally appropriate Thou Shell of Death (1936) by "Nicholas Blake," penname of Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, which turned out to be unexpected surprise as it's so much better than I remembered from my first read – a genuine Golden Age classic. I honestly had forgotten that Blake's skills as a mystery novelist were on par with Christianna Brand, John Dickson Carr and Agatha Christie. So started to move some of the remaining, unread Blake's nearer the top of the big pile.

Nick Fuller, of The Grandest Game in the World, graded that handful of titles in the comments and decided to go with The Dreadful Hollow (1953). A novel Nick described as "a good, well-constructed village poison pen mystery."

The Dreadful Hollow is the tenth novel to feature Blake's series detective, Nigel Strangeways, who's hired by a well-known financier to investigate a flurry of anonymous letters of the poisonous kind. Sir Archibald Blick opened machine-tool factory in Moreford, an old market town, which draws its workforce from the nearby village of Prior's Umborne, but "envy, malice and uncharitableness were at work" in the village – someone is sending "short but not sweet" letters. The vicar Mark Raynham receives one saying "get up in that pulpit, holy Joe, and tell them your wife was a whore." Daniel Durdle, son of the postmistress and religious zealot, is told "you hypocrite, I know about the strong liquors you swill privily." John Smart, foreman of the new factory, committed suicide after a letter arrived promising "I'll tell Blick about 1940." Sir Archibald wants Strangeways to go down to Prior's Umborne to discover the source of the poison pen letters.

Strangeways descending on Prior's Umborne to root out the malicious letter writer is a joy to read as the gentleman detective from London makes quite an impression on the villagers ("I saw some children imitating your walk just now. There's fame for you"). And he's a pleasantly active, energetic detective. During this first part, Strangeways meets many of the principle players of what's slowly unfolding at the village. Charles Blick is the youngest of Sir Archibald's two sons and was installed by his father as manager of the factory, which keeps him busy most of the time. Stanford Blick, eldest of the two sons, "bit of a genius in his way, but a born dabbler." Miss Celandine Chantmerle, "idolized in the village," is bound to a wheelchair and is cared for by her younger, highly strung sister, Rosebay ("the father was a botanist"). Celandine knows everything worth knowing about the village and used to be engaged to Charles, but recently, Charles and Rosebay have been seeing a lot of each other. There are the aforementioned vicar and the Durdles. And then the poison pen case takes a sinister turn.

Celandine receives a package with a pair of doctored binoculars ("...this Grand Guignol device") with a note, "read this now, Bright Eyes, if you can," which could have easily blinded her or worse – if the screw releasing the spring-trap hadn't been so stiff to move. Things don't stop there. Sir Archibald, "an apostle of eugenics," received an anonymous letter that Charles is involved with the undesirable Rosebay and comes down on Prior's Umborne to clean up the whole damn village. This ends with him being found dead at the bottom of a quarry the following day. Police quickly rule out an accident or suicide.

The Dreadful Hollow is indeed a good, well-constructed village mystery from the twilight years of the Golden Age and stands out for two reasons. The plot basically consists of three separate, but interconnected, cases sharing the same cast of characters. Blake nicely strings the poison pen letters, the deadly binoculars and the murder of Sir Archibald into an overarching, well clued and coherent narrative with a great conclusion. A conclusion coming as a direct consequence of those three cases and the actions of the people deeply involved in them on the small community of Prior's Umborne. So a very well done, slow build to a dramatic conclusion. The 1950s was a period when the genre was transitioning away from the plot-driven approach of detection and deduction to focus on character and psychology, which some tried to combine at the time and often with mixed results. Last year, I reviewed several novels by E.G. Cousins and Nigel FitzGerald who attempts were well intended and clunky at best. And, usually, it was the plot that had to give more than it received. Blake, on the other hand, beautifully harmonized the traditional, fair play approach with then emerging psychological crime novel. That alone makes The Dreadful Hollow worthy of note as it shows what perhaps could have been.

So it's therefore a shame none of the three cases poses a genuine challenge to either the reader or Strangeways, but it was nice Blake allowed Strangeways to keep pace with the reader's armchair deductions for most of the story. And one aspect of the solution is a little dubious.

Nitpicking aside, the only true flaw of The Dreadful Hollow is one that it shares with so many other so-called mid-tier titles from top-tier mystery writers. Namely being overshadowed by their authors better-known, more celebrated works. For example, Suddenly at His Residence (1946) is a superb Golden Age detective novel, but, as some have pointed out, it's not even Christianna Brand's fourth or fifth best mystery. Same can be said of The Dreadful Hollow. It's unquestionable a good village mystery, inspired in places, but Blake has penned even better, much tighter plotted detective stories. So while not the classic that's Thou Shell of Death, The Dreadful Hollow still comes recommended for what it's. Simply a very well done village mystery.


  1. The issue with you being such a convincing reviewer is that I hate the Nicholas Blake I read -- as you recall, I thought that A QUESTION OF PROOF was very pretentious in its attempts to differentiate itself as a "detective novel of character", while failing to give a single character an active personality outside of having the narrator ramble off psychology buzzwords at us -- but your posts on his apparently good works make me almost tempted to revisit him............. Maybe one day I'll take you up on Blake...

    ...Speaking of my review, I mentioned that I thought Blake might function better in the short-form, because I thought that the short-story-length impossible crime at the end of A QUESTION OF PROOF was actually somewhat solid. Well, on the weight of that observation, I got into the Patricia McGerr anthology and read Blake's "The Assassins' Club"! And I have to say, reading that story made me re-evaluate my stance on Blake.

    He apparently isn't very good at writing short stories either.

    "The Assassins' Club" reads like every modern parody of Golden Age detective stories written by people who have never read them, which is a Hell of an observation to make about a story written by one of the supposed Golden Age greats. A group of crime-lovers having dinner! The lights go out! The man is stabbed! Oh dear, whodunnit!? The solution is similarly uninspired (and also not fair at all).

    So, unfortunately, this story has done further damage to my chances of ever revisiting Blake, but as I said your reviews of his work ARE convincing, so I'll keep your praises in mind.

    1. Drawing on my credit as a persuasive reviewer, I can only recommend you wait until December and give Thou Shell of Death and the short story "A Problem in White" a shot. If you don't like them either, then Blake is not for you. I mean, if you think A Question of Proof is pretentious in its attempts to differentiate itself as a detective novel of character, I can only imagine your response to The Beast Must Die or Head of a Traveller.

    2. Well, I'm sure I'll like them if they ACTUALLY write characters, instead of just narrating psychology labels at us and thinking that makes compelling characterization!

      I'll take your recommendation to heart and wait to December to read those stories