Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Head of a Traveller: Mini-Review

Found: One corpse floating in the Thames.
Lost: One head to said corpse.
Wanted: One cold-blooded killer.

Nigel Strangeways, poet and sometimes amateur investigator/gentleman detective, is invited by his friend Paul Williamson to join him for lunch with the famous poet Robert Seaton. At first appearance, the Seatons seem a charming family, but even at first meeting Nigel can sense undercurrents of anxiety and strain. Then two months later, Nigel receives a telegram from Paul:

BODY IN THAMES 1 1/2 MILES UPSTREAM FROM HINTON LACEY STOP ARE YOU INTERESTED QUESTION-MARK

Nigel's answer:

NO WHY SHOULD I BE STOP FISH IT OUT IF IT WORRIES YOU STOP VERY BUSY.

It isn't until Paul's next telegram that Nigel does get interested:

POLICE BESIEGING PLASH MEADOW STOP JANET SEATON IN GREAT FORM O/C THE DEFENCE STOP HAS ALREADY CLONKED INSPECTOR STOP ARE YOU INTERESTED NOW YOU OLD VULTURE QUESTION-MARK

Nigel gets hold of his old friend Superintendent Blount (who just happens to be in charge of the case) to see what details he can glean before heading Hinton Lacey. All signs point to the body having floated from Plash Meadow, the Seaton family home. Nigel uses his (authentic) interest in Seaton's poetry gain entrance to the house and soon begins probing for alibis and motives and explanations of relationships. There's the dwarf Finny, the family servant who may be more than just an underling. There's the relationship between the Seatons and their tenants Rennell Torrance and his daughter Mara...is there a whiff of blackmail in the air? There's the evident tension surrounding Seaton's current wife Janet every time his first wife is mentioned. And there's the tempestuous relationship between Seaton's son Lionel and Mara Torrance. Lots of drama, an appearance of secrets, and everyone seems out to protect Robert--the Great Poet. But eventually Nigel digs to the bottom of the case to find the answer to this case of ruthless murder and very bloody murder.

It may just be the mood I was in yesterday--I spent my morning in a meeting where I felt like the speaker was an adult in a Charlie Brown special. Nothing he said sounded like real language to me. And then last night when I was finishing up Nicholas Blake's Head of a Traveller, he just wasn't making sense to me. *Spoiler: I definitely wasn't buying the whole "everybody seems to be in a conspiracy to protect the Great Poet" thing nor "the Great Poet sacrifices himself at the end to protect his wife" (whom he doesn't even love) thing. And I'm afraid that, much as I generally love Blake's writing and plotting, the whole story just came across as a convoluted mess. Much more convoluted than necessary for the purposes of mystifying the reader--I didn't feel mystified. I felt frustrated with everything from the opener (Nigel Strangeway's journal entry--in first person present while the rest of the novel is in past tense) to the bizarre characterizations (a gibbering dwarf? seriously?). This one was quite simply not up to Blake's usual par--at least not for me. Others have rated it quite highly, so your mileage may vary. ★★

5 comments:

Steve Barge said...

Thanks for this review, Bev. I read it yonks ago and wasn't that impressed - The Case Of The Abominable Snowman is much better - but, as it's supposedly "the" classic Blake, I might take another look at it soon.

Bev Hankins said...

Thanks, Steve. I agree--Abominable Snowman is much, much better.

fredamans said...

As readers, we all have those days where nothing seems decent or readable. Sorry this was a bit of a letdown. Great review!

Jacqueline Fiedler said...

This has nothing to do with this particular book, but I recently read that Nicholas Blake (aka Cecil Day Lewis) was actor Daniel Day Lewis' father. Were you aware of that or is my information incorrect?

Bev Hankins said...

Jacqueline...yes, I did know this (and, yes, you are correct).

I've written about Blake/Day Lewis before so I didn't think to put in the info about the pseudonym.