NICHOLAS BLAKE – The Private Wound.

Collins Crime Club, UK, hardcover, 1968. US hardcover: Harper & Row, 1968. US paperbacks: Dell, 1970 (first cover shown); Perennial, 1981. Many British paperback editions, including Pan, 1971. Australian pb: J. M. Dent, 1987 (second cover shown).

NICHOLAS BLAKE The Private Wound

    “Nicholas Blake” is an author that I’ve neglected over the years (among many), and I’m trying, with a modicum of success, to catch up with some of them. I put the author’s name in quotes, since Blake was in real life the well-known Anglo-Irish poet Cecil Day-Lewis, but as Blake, his primary sleuthing character was a fellow named Nigel Strangeways, who appeared in 16 of his 20 detective novels.

   Since The Private Wound is one of the four that Strangeways is not in, I’ll refrain from saying more about the gentleman for now — it will wait until I read one that he is in — except to say that one source on the Internet mentions that primary model for Mr Strangeways was Day-Lewis’s contemporary writer and poet, W.H. Auden.

   Day-Lewis was born in Ireland, and presumably had roots there all his life, which goes a long way in explaining the often poetic view of Ireland in the late 1930s there is to be found in The Private Wound. What one does not expect (or at least I did not) was the sensuality, the down-right earthiness, of the brief affair in which writer Dominic Eyre, visiting Ireland from England, finds himself enmeshed with Harry, short for Harriet, the wife of Eyre’s host, Flurry Leeson. (Flurry is short for Florence, “not an uncommon Christian name for men in Ireland.”)

   Here, with your permission, is a short introductory quote, from the very first page:

   When I remember that marvelous summer of 1939, in the West of Ireland almost thirty years ago, one picture always slips to the front of my mind. I am lying on a bed drenched with our sweat. She is standing by the open window to cool herself in the moonlight. I see again the hour-glass figure, the sloping shoulders, the rather short legs, that disturbing groove of the spine halfway hidden by her dark red hair which the moonlight has turned black. The fuchsia below the window will have turned to gouts of black blood. The river beyond is talking in its sleep. She is naked.

NICHOLAS BLAKE The Private Wound

   Blake died in 1972, and The Private Wound was the last detective novel he wrote. His first was A Question of Proof, which appeared in 1935, which is why I think of him as a Golden Age writer. But a paragraph such as the one above could have appeared in very few novels written in the 1930s, or so I’m conditioned to believe. If I’m in error, I don’t mind, please let me know.

   I’m weak on Irish history — but not as much as I was before I read this book. I knew that there was always a fierce hostility between the Irish and the English — and as Eyre soon discovers, Flurry was part of it. What I did not know was that certain factions in pre-war Ireland were seriously considering negotiations with Germany; uprisings in Ireland would seriously divert England’s attention to their west, rather than keeping their eye on what the Nazis were doing. And a conflict between Germany and England would leave the Northern counties open for takeover.

   I may not have that exactly right. The book that Blake wrote is not a history book, per se, but Dominic Eyre finds himself in the thick of things, of that there is no doubt: suspected both of being a spy and by all of the neighboring countryside of cuckolding his landlord. ((As note of technical accuracy, it is Flurry’s younger brother Kevin who owns the cottage where Eyre is staying.))

NICHOLAS BLAKE The Private Wound

   In the sentence before last, the latter is true, but the former is not, and thus the story is made. It makes for a formidable tale of detection as well — I will not tell you who the victim is, and who becomes Eyre’s partner in solving the crime — and I confess that I did not know who the killer was until two pages before All Is Revealed. And I should have. Known, that is, and much earlier. All in all, nicely done, in a sad and beautifully haunting sort of way.

   The same Internet source suggests that The Private Wound is considered the most autobiographical of the author’s works in the mystery genre. That may or may not be true — I have no way of knowing otherwise — but it does help explain the strange framing device. That the tale begins with “Dominic Eyre” describing the events that happened to him thirty years before is not so unusual — it was the closing short epilogue which was, when first read, the puzzler.

   The title comes from The Two Gentlemen from Verona: “The private wound is deepest.”

— November 2004

[UPDATE] 06-14-08.    I’ll be posting a review one of Blake’s detective novels with Nigel Strangeways in it sometime soon, perhaps not tomorrow, but by Monday at the latest.