The Sad Variety (1964)

Nicholas Blake

Daniel Day Lewis’ poet laureate father writing 60’s detective fiction to pay the bills.


Nicholas Blake was the penname of C.S. Lewis who was an Anglo-Irish poet laureate and the father of academy award winning actor Daniel Day Lewis. Because, assumedly, the early earnings of a poet wouldn’t pay Daniel’s acting-school bills Lewis also wrote a series of detective novels based around the exploits of ‘gentleman detective’ Nigel Strangways.

Cecil Day-Lewis Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1968 until his death in 1972.

This is one of the later entries in the Strangeways series published in 1964. The book uses the trope of a closed circle of suspects trapped within a location, in this case an English country town which is isolated by heavy snow. The young daughter of a nuclear scientist has been kidnapped, the ransom for her return, is the vital nuclear state secrets known to her father.

As a detective Strangeways is almost a bystander. The plot progresses as much through accident and happenstance than detective work. Strangeways’ most constructive action is to direct his relatively more capable wife towards the task of slyly questioning suspects and using her expertise in high speed driving and knowledge of cars (neither of which are explained in this outing) to literally speed him and his police colleagues towards the third act.

The book is like Nicholas Freeling’s What Are the Bugles Blowing For? in some ways. As in Bugles this is a late entry in the Strangeways series and his character traits, background, and capabilities are assumed knowledge. As with Bugles the book also struggles with how to situate itself within the changing society of the sixties though is admirable enough in not landing on the wrong side of history in judging societal standards of sexuality, marriage and class.

I wouldn’t recommend this as an introduction to the Strangeways series or the detective writing of Blake/Lewis. Where Bugles was an example of a 60’s detective novel that is very badly written The Sad Variety is consistently well written but feels rushed and cut for length so that none of the characters are ever fleshed out enough to make the stakes seem as important as they should. Unlike Bugles there aren’t as many interesting asides or digressions that help work as a time capsule.

Blake/Lewis identified as a communist for much of his life. He turned against the movement and the villains within this novel are said to representative of what he saw as the by-any-means-necessary doctrine of communism.

A great pulp book cover to this edition and an interesting snapshot of the tipping point of society as it progressed throughout the 60’s but, unfortunately, never compelling enough to be anything but a curiosity.


Transmetropolitan (1997)

Warren Ellis & Darick Robertson

Over 10 volumes between 1997-2002 Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson developed a Mike Judge like absurdist yet eerily prescient dystopian future. The anti-hero protagonist of their world is Spider Jerusalem. Spider is a chaos agent gonzo journalist who is a mix of the drug fuelled passion of Hunter S Thomson tempered with the arch narration of Renton from Trainspotting.

Ellis and Robertson foresee the idea of celebrity presidency, populist religion and the manipulation and subversion of journalism. They incorporate and invent sci-fi tropes. flat,800x800,070,fThe creators also foresee and explore the mobilisation of movements such as trans-gender rights emerging as important distinct causes rather than small parts of larger struggles. Written in 1997, the writers could easily have used these fringe groups and the idea of identity struggle for cheap laughs but, instead, continually work hard for moments of humour while also providing pathos and closure in the various story arcs and overarching tale of Spider. The character of Spider is written  in such a way that he manages to walk a line of being heavily drug afflicted, dry and extremely cynical but also instinctively compassionate.

Special mention must be made of the art. I often skim over artwork in comics but the art of Darick Robertson demands attention. Robertson’s art is visceral and fun, and is often riddled with Easter eggs, gags, and messages within the densely populated crowd scenes. He consistently goes the extra yard to be creative and provide a fully populated and organic feeling environment. Transmetropolitan from start to finish is fully realised and bitingly satirical. It remains the most intensely passionate and truly enraged graphic novel I’ve read.