A Question of Proof (1935) by Nicholas Blake

Cecil Day-Lewis (father of preeminent film actor Sir Daniel Day-Lewis) was for much of his life a “serious poet”. As many were at the time, he was taken with the detective novel and wished to write one of his own, but was naturally anxious that his reputation would be tarnished by the knowledge that he had sullied his hands with the less-than-art of crime fiction and instead opted to write under the name “Nicholas Blake”. Within no time, however, the British reading public quickly identified Nicholas Blake as Cecil Day-Lewis. In spite of his worries, however, his reputation was not hampered but bolstered by this fine novel of detection, and he went on to write nineteen more, most featuring the detective of A Question of Proof Nigel Strangeways.

At the Sudeley Hall premonitory school, schoolmaster Michael Evans is waist-deep in a love affair with the wife of his employer, the Headmaster Percy Vale. When the Headmaster’s nephew Algernon Wyvern-Wemyss winds up strangled in a haystack where Evans and Mrs. Vale had just shared a lunch earlier that day, Superintendent Armstrong starts to formulate a theory that the illegitimate lovers committed the murder. To save him and his darling from the noose, Evans summons to his aid psychological detective Nigel Strangeways.

A Question of Proof is in every way a “detective novel of character” — the psychological detective story, as Anthony Berkeley described it, literarily conscious and high-brow, deriving a puzzle not from means or opportunity, but from motive and psychology. To that end, I can praise Nicholas Blake for his living and breathing setting, well-drawn if unpleasant and not particularly charming characters, and a handful of entertaining scenes that stick out in my mind. But, even for all that, I did not particularly enjoy A Question of Proof, a novel with great characters who get to do nothing in a plot so thin the people in the story openly apologize for it.

Call me “low-brow” or “tasteless”, but I found this one hard-going in its nearly total lack of detective interest for the hefty majority of the tale. The murder occurs fairly early on, and an investigation is underway. The ensuing investigation, however, is densely-packed into much less space than it could’ve used, giving us a sweeping and itemized overview of every major character’s schedule. Despite being a novel of character interest, I found this scene gave us very little in the way of psychological insights, and amounts to very little in the way of criminal insights, as the noted lack of material evidence makes it impossible to draw meaningful conclusions from the information given to us. For almost the entire remaining length of the story after this, we’re treated to (occasionally entertaining) scenes of a chapter-long car chase, bickering schoolmasters, bickering detectives, bickering students, Nigel psychoanalyzing teachers from afar, a secret society initiation, and glimpses into the wavering romance between Evans and Mrs. Vale. This is where the novel loses me, unfortunately, as both a detective novel and a novel of character interest.

As a detective novel, there’s very little in the way of detection going on here. There are few scenes that move the murder plot along, and even those are all by accident. Mostly protracted scenes of Nigel doing something quite irrelevant and by sheer unbelievable fortune stumbling onto one or two pieces of literally-the-most-important-information-he-could’ve-gotten clues, and rather large assumptions are quickly made therefrom. We’re meant to find these assumptions brilliant, but they’re always guesses later vindicated by bullying characters into a confession or Nigel shooting his shot and wowing someone into confirming them.

As for being a novel of character interest, I’m of the mind that just having well-drawn characters doesn’t make for the best of novels. Or, perhaps they might! But for certain not the best of novels I’d be caught reading. The characters do, in fact, have many definable character traits, but the dialogue is interminably stuffy and not pleasant to read through at all (did people really talk like this in 1935?). The characters have many personality traits, but I found myself ingratiated to none of them. It is majorly because the characters, on top of being unpleasant, get no room to show off the “silver-linings” of their awful personalities. Outside of the sometimes pleasant adventures of Nigel Strangeways, Michael Evans and Mrs. Vale, nearly the entire principle cast spend the entire novel doing nothing but being asses to one another. And I will not allow Nicholas Blake to escape the “show, don’t tell” axiom, for much if not all of the psychological depth these characters have is demonstrated shallowly and summarized by Strangeways based on detached observations of a small handful of events designed to give him an artificial grounds for psychoanalysis. When you remove Strangeways from the equation, this illusion of “psychological definition” vanishes.

When we do get scenes where characters get to stretch their legs a little bit and actively demonstrate their personalities outside of quibbling with one another, they’re very often, as the book openly admits, filler. Yes, the book admits to having unnecessary scenes, in a self-conscious and apologetic quote from a character who criticizes detective novels for protracted scenes of nothingness and arbitrary second murders, because “they can never stretch the murder over two-hundred pages”. Considering that the book also had a second murder, Nicholas Blake was either acknowledging that he was engaging in the very same faults his characters dislike in detective novels, which actively makes it worse, or he has a total lack of self-awareness and the criticism takes on a new ironical quality.

Now, the resolution actually had many clever bits, and I enjoyed the answers to the questions posed by the story. The first murder relies on a fairly neat plot that brilliantly draws from the setting as it is established. I actually began to enjoy myself when the second murder happened in the last fifth of the story, and characters got to move around and do things that mattered, and we got some genuine detection for a moment. Plus, while the second murder was quickly resolved, it uses a decent and neat Chestertonian explanation for the murder and disappearance of the weapon in a guarded playfield (you might be able to call this an impossible crime as much as “The Invisible Man” is, I suppose…). A much more enjoyable short story buried inside of this book.

All-told, I did not enjoy A Question of Proof. The book criticizes itself through one of its characters, and despite this apparent self-awareness I actually believe Blake compounds his perceived faults of the genre in this effort. The characters are well-drawn, but you couldn’t care less about them if you wanted to, and they get to do nothing meaningful to really make their personalities shine. Many prolonged and empty scenes. Artificial psychoanalysis and weak detection from a detective who deals in admitted guesswork that fate seems to vindicate. The book has beautiful descriptions and good prose, but as a plot it fails as both the character novel it sought to be and the detective novel it sought to supersede. There are good ideas come the resolution, but since Nicholas Blake openly notes the faults in long-form crime writing, perhaps he’d have been better served as a writer of short stories?