It probably hasn’t escaped anyone who reads this blog that I have become a bit of a fan of Beverley Nichols recently. So I was *very* excited (as I mentioned here) to discover he’d written a series of crime novels, and it was probably inevitable I would be reading the first one before long!
“No Man’s Street” is the first in the series, and features Beverley’s regular detective, Horatio Green, assisted by his niece Charlotte. Green has retired after a hinted-at illustrious career as a private detective, often working alongside a policeman called Waller, a rather traditional officer who Green has allowed to take credit for many of the cases. However, the peer and music critic Sir Edward Carstairs is found mysteriously murdered (stabbed in the back although with a surprisingly small amount of blood) and Mr. Green is lured out of retirement by the prima donna Sonia Rubenstein to investigate.
There are plenty of candidates for the murderer because, as with most classic murder mysteries, the victim is not a pleasant person; sadistic, cold and with a tendency towards blackmail, he is not missed by his sister or friends or former colleagues. His nephew Peter inherits the title but not much in the way of money, so has no motive and a perfect alibi; however, things are not so clear-cut for sister Veronica, her companion Sheila Crane, the conductor Dr Ernst Kalkbrenner and even Sonia herself. The plot starts to thicken in a quite dramatic way, involving Iron Curtain spying, illegitimate children, unexpected marriages and lost musical compositions – this is quite a rich and involved story!
I was particularly struck by the portrayal of Veronica and Sheila who, reading between the lines, are a couple; Nichols paints a sympathetic portrait of them, with their anxieties and pains very movingly rendered, and I imagine this might have been quite an unusual thing for the time the novel was published.
Every classic detective story has to have its own detective with some personal quirks and this one is no exception. Horatio Green is an endearing character, with a love of music and flowers, plus a highly developed and sensitive sense of smell which seems to play a large part in his solving of mysteries. Nichols admits in the foreword to my edition that he invested the character with many of his own characteristics and certainly there is more discussion of plants, gardens and fountains than you might normally expect in a mystery novel!
“…he was a kindly person, who held the old-fashioned opinion that we had been brought into this world to try to do some good, and that if we did not do it we should look very foolish when we came to meet our Maker. Mr. Green had no doubt whatever that one day he would meet his Maker, and he tried to live his life accordingly. It was often – as many of us will agree – very difficult.
Meanwhile, he stood there sniffing his Christmas rose.
He was pink, small and round. He was five foot one in his socks and he weighed 160 pounds. His eyes were grey and inclined to blink, and his hair was grey and inclined to thin. He was a happy little man, for he loved his fellow men, and he adored his garden.”
This being Beverley Nichols, the writing is lovely and there is a lot less flippancy and light-heartedness than in some of his other works; which is a good thing really, as it wouldn’t sit well beside a murder. But then, Nichols is actually a much deeper writer than he’s often given credit for and I find it a little sad to hear him pigeonholed as a surface-level garden writer.
“How could he explain to a man like Smithers – for he hardly admitted it to himself – that snobbery is a deep and devastating vice, that it will kill to gain its ends? That the illusion of ‘Society’ – Smithers’ conception of ‘Society’ – is the final cheat, the ultimate task-mistress? How could he tell this lost, rich fool about these dark, mysterious things? He would never understand; he would not even hear. He would only straddle his legs even wider, and ask one to have another sherry. And call one a ‘sleuth’.”
I’m not going to go deeply into the plot because I don’t want to put in any spoilers – all I will say is that it is quite complicated, but not impossible to guess or solve for an experienced mystery reader! I liked the variety of elements in this – the iron curtain/spying side of things, the music, the settings, the little gardening asides – and events got quite exciting towards the end. Certainly, NMS isn’t up in the ranks of Christie, Sayers and all the Golden Age writers, and I’m sure Nichols would have been the first to acknowledge this. But it is a good, absorbing and extremely entertaining read, and I’m looking forward to following more of Horatio Green’s cases!