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.


What are the Bugles Blowing For? a.k.a. The Bugles Blowing (1975)

Nicolas Freeling

The plot of the tantalizing titled What are the Bugles Blowing For starts interestingly enough with, in the first few pages, a high-ranking French civil servant, named La Touche, calling the police to confess to the murders of his wife, daughter and their lover. La Touche finds all three in bed and promptly fetches a gun to put single bullets in his spouse and offspring and four in their mutual lover.
There is no mystery or doubt to La Touche’s motives or guilt but detective Castang, Freeling’s protagonist of this and several other books, is ordered to ensure there are no political aspects to the crime. The dead lover was Jewish and so in the first quarter of the novel Freeling appears to be setting up the potential for international political stakes between Jewish and Arab interests. Then these stakes are abandoned. Detective Castang travels to England to investigate the potential connections to drug cartels and anarchist rings. These connections are also abandoned, quickly and dismissively, while Castang eats lunch and ruminates on the differences between English and French police. Detective Castang stands out as a detective character by being very bland. He has a measured and not overly dedicated work ethic, quiet home life, and shy wife. Castang does a lot of thinking and there are several subsequent mediations and asides about the nature of crime, the accountability of the elite and the meaning of the death penalty. Freeling touches upon the Nazi death camps (specifically Ravens Bruck) and the post-holocaust question of Jewish existentialism. In these sections, it seemed that the book had the potential for real importance and that it’s difficult style and meandering plot may have been motivated by an either Pynchon-esque obtuse brilliance or a Phillip K Dick-like struggle with focus. But then, the tide would turn to boring diatribes about food or anti-perspirant.
Unfortunately, ultimately, the book is just too hard to read for too little reward. The story is bleak and lacks any sort of narrative arc. The writing seems as if it were translated from another language or as if an editor had wanted to cut pages by carving out pronouns and prepositions. Sentences seem to start mid-way through and are followed by non-sequiturs, or run-ons, or whole paragraphs which are only tangentially related.
I finished the book feeling frustrated that I had wasted my time with it. A similar feeling, I had to when I finished Infinite Jest. I’ve since come around on the idea of Infinite Jest and David Foster Wallace and appreciate a lot of how that book treats the reader. Obviously, Freeling was writing on the same level but I wonder if he was writing with contempt for his readers? I don’t think he really cares about the reader with this book. I’d even say that the book was probably written quickly and dismissively over the course of a week to make him some cash. Which, unfortunately for me, only makes me more intrigued by Nicolas Freeling and his output. As an author, he won several awards and, even today, many of his books are still in print. So, is this book an exception or the rule to Freeling’s style? The work of angry rushed genius or misguided rushed ambition?
I guess the only way to find out is to once again strap myself in for another not so thrilling adventure with the non-descript and meditative Detective Castang!