The Worm of Death
Nicholas Blake, Hamlyn, 1961
She’s an award-winning sculptor. He’s an Oxford-graduate poet. They fight crime…
It’s official. Poetry doesn’t pay. When even the Poet Laureate needs a day job, there’s no hope at all for the rest of us.
Our very own local Poet Laureate, C. Day Lewis’s day job was writing pot-boiler mysteries, as Nicholas Blake. His 16 Nigel Strangeways stories, started in 1935, garnered quite a fanbase as readers followed the young, handsome poet from idealistic days as a sleuth who used literary references to solve mysteries, through darker times in WWII, a marriage that ended with his beloved wife’s death through to much more world-weary stories in the 1950s and 60s. By 1961, Strangeways, in many ways older and wiser, has met a sculptress (sculptor, she reminds someone less politically correct than myself) and they have moved to Greenwich. This is handy, since that’s exactly what C. Day. Lewis himself had done (moved, that is, not married a sculptor.)
The Worm of Death (don’t you just love that title) is nearer the end of the cycle, but Strangeways is still sleuthing away, like a poetic cross between Miss Marple and The Famous Five, by this point aided and abetted by the lovely Clare. It’s all very modern for the time – a point is made about their not being married – quite racy for 1961, and though the actual book feels a little dated, the story clips along at a good pace, albeit with some now-hilarious dialogue.
The best bit about The Worm of Death is the fabulously atmospheric setting. We are deep in mid-20th Century Greenwich here, and the references to the place show just how little – and how much – the place has changed. It’s set in the winter of 1960 (Blake/Lewis somewhat red-faced admits he’s changed the weather of that year) in thick pea-souper fog with the whole of Greenwich immersed in a myopic vision of fear.
Roads and areas are regularly namechecked – it’s clear Lewis/Blake adored the grime, smut and beauty of it – and places described with the eye of one who knows every inch of the terrain. Most of it is set in Crooms Hill (handily in the house where Lewis himself lived – check out the blue plaque at Number 6) and around the west and centre of town (East Greenwich is only mentioned as a sort of amorphous mass where where poor people and undesirables live, ditto Docklands, though the foot tunnel does get a splendid mention.)
The big difference about this freezing, foggy vision of our town and the one we are more familiar with today is the river traffic and the docks, which are a constant presence. The citizens of this Greenwich know every ship, every noise each boat makes and the different vessels that traverse the Thames as well as their own children. The factories and docks are characters in themselves and in this The Worm of Death is an important social document. This is stuff within living memory, but hardly anyone thinks about it now.
It’s a pretty basic whodunnit, which, if you suspend your disbelief in a device where a top Scotland Yard official would go to an ageing local poet for help to solve a murder, is really rather fun. I enjoyed accompanying Strangeways and one of his suspects up to the top of one of the hills in the Park and sitting on that bench looking out over London with them, I enjoyed walking past the Power Station and Ballast Quay, and looking into the murk of The Thames outside Trafalgar Tavern for clues, then going inside to ask the residents (not regulars, mark you, these guys lived there) if they’d heard anything suspicious. I especially enjoyed the detailed description of what was clearly Lewis’s house.
I was a bit disappointed that Strangeways didn’t actually compose any poetry along the way, though his artistic sensibilities came out in other ways:
“She’d be quite handsome, thought Nigel, if she took herself in hand: but what possessed her, with that complexion, to wear a coffee-coloured dress?”
“Nigel shuddered inwardly at the appalling solecism.”
Happily Clare does do a spot of sculpture, much to the alarm of her cock-er-ney char lady.
It’s great fun, and I romped through it in a matter of hours. I was less sure about the frankly baffling ending. I won’t reveal what it is in case you fancy reading the book (it’s been out of print for ages but is still to be found on Amazon Marketplace etc. – I got my copy for 37p) but in today’s climate of policing, it owes more to Life on Mars than The Bill. I guess it’s just a sign of not just police-methods but literary style itself changing, but nonetheless, The Worm of Death still makes a charming local read, and not only from an historical perspective.