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Authors: Nicholas Blake

Thou Shell of Death

BOOK: Thou Shell of Death
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Contents

Cover

About the Book

About the Author

Also by Nicholas Blake

Title Page

I: The Assistant Commissioner’s Tale

II: The Airman’s Tale

III: A Christmas Tale

IV: A Dead Man’s Tale

V: A Twisted Tale

VI: The Don’s Tale

VII: Telltale

VIII: A Tale of Woe

IX: A Tale Curtailed

X: Told In A —

XI: The Traveller’s Tale

XII: Tales From the Past

XIII: The Old Nurse’s Tale

XIV: ‘As a Tale That is Told’

XV: The Tale Retold

More from Vintage Classic Crime

Copyright

About the Book

Fergus O’Brien, a legendary World War One flying ace with several skeletons hidden in his closet, receives a series of mocking letters predicting that he will be murdered on Boxing Day.

Undaunted, O’Brien throws a Christmas party, inviting everyone who could be suspected of making the threats, along with private detective Nigel Strangeways. But despite Nigel’s presence, the former pilot is found dead, just as predicted, and Nigel is left to aid the local police in their investigation while trying to ignore his growing attraction to one of the other guests – and suspects – explorer Georgia Cavendish.

Thou Shell of Death
is a dazzlingly complex and addictive read, laced with literary allusions, from a master of detective fiction.

About the Author

Nicholas Blake was the pseudonym of Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, who was born in County Laois, Ireland, in 1904. After his mother died in 1906, he was brought up in London by his father, spending summer holidays with relatives in Wexford. He was educated at Sherborne School and Wadham College, Oxford, from which he graduated in 1927. Blake initially worked as a teacher to supplement his income from his poetry writing and he published his first Nigel Strangeways novel,
A Question of Proof
, in 1935. Blake went on to write a further nineteen crime novels, all but four of which featured Nigel Strangeways, as well as numerous poetry collections and translations.

During the Second World War he worked as a publications editor in the Ministry of Information, which he used as the basis for the Ministry of Morale in
Minute for Murder
, and after the war he joined the publishers Chatto & Windus as an editor and director. He was appointed Poet Laureate in 1968 and died in 1972 at the home of his friend, the writer Kingsley Amis.

Also by Nicholas Blake

A Question of Proof

There’s Trouble Brewing

The Beast Must Die

The Widow’s Cruise

Malice in Wonderland

The Case of the Abominable Snowman

The Smiler with the Knife

Minute for Murder

Head of a Traveller

The Dreadful Hollow

The Whisper in the Gloom

End of Chapter

The Worm of Death

The Sad Variety

The Morning After Death

NICHOLAS BLAKE

Thou Shell of Death

I

The Assistant Commissioner’s Tale

A WINTER AFTERNOON
in London. Twilight is descending with the same swift and noiseless efficiency as the lifts in a thousand hotels and stores and offices. Electric signs, winking, shifting, unrolling, flaring and blaring, announce the varied blessings of twentieth-century civilisation, proclaim the divinity of this port and that actress: a few stars, which have had the temerity to appear, seem to have quickly retired from the competition into higher air. In the streets a preponderance of children and brown paper parcels shows that Christmas is near. The shop windows, too, are piled with that diversity of obscene knick-knacks which nothing but the spirt of universal goodwill could surely tolerate—calendars to suit every bad taste or every degree of personal animosity, chromium-plated cigar cutters, sets of ivory toothpicks, nameless articles in fancy leather, illuminated and perhaps illuminating texts, bogus jewels and synthetic foods—an orgy of the superfluous. Men and money circulate with feverish activity. Even the traffic seems to pulse with greater din and violence through the main arteries,
as
though the whole city was sprinting desperately down a last lap.

Vavasour Square lay out of the main currents of this Christmas spate. Its superb eighteenth-century houses stood aloof amidst the gathering darkness, like aristocrats deprecating the gaudy, loud-voiced spirit of the times. The clamour of the big streets reached them subdued to a whisper, abashed by the chill hauteur of their facades. In the garden of the square, plane trees sketched leisurely and consummate gestures against the sky, like the arms of noble ladies in brocade, and the grass held all the suavity of old tradition. Even the dogs that had the privilege of inhabiting this exclusive neighborhood seemed to address their friends or their lampposts with the courtly grace of Beaus and Corinthians. Nigel Strangeways, looking out of the window of No. 28, muttered to himself a couplet from Pope. He looked down at his waistcoat and was vaguely astonished to find it West-of-England cloth, not flowered silk. He would have been far more astonished had he been told that out of this backwater he was shortly to be swirled into the strangest, the most complicated and the most melodramatic case in all his career.

Nigel, after a brief stay at Oxford, in the course of which he had neglected Demosthenes in favour of Freud, had turned to the profession of criminal investigator—the only profession left, he was wont to remark, which gave scope for good manners and scientific curiosity. His aunt, Lady Marlinworth, with
whom
he was having tea this afternoon, took good manners for granted. As to scientific curiosity she was more doubtful: it had a flavour of the banausic, the not-quite-quite. There were other things about Nigel that made here uneasy; such as his habit of taking his teacup for walks with him round the room and leaving it on the very edge of whatever article of furniture happened to be handy.

‘Nigel,’ she said, ‘there is a little table beside you; it would be more suitable than the seat of that chair.’

Nigel hastily removed the offending object and placed it on the table. He looked at his aunt. She was fragile and delicately tinted as one of her own teacups, perfect in this other-worldly setting. He wondered what would happen if she were to be dropped suddenly into the middle of a violent, vulgar situation—a murder, for instance. Would she just smash into a hundred delicate fragments?

‘Well, Nigel, I haven’t seen you for a long time. I hope you haven’t been overworking. Your—er—profession must be very exacting. Still, it has compensations, no doubt. You must come into contact with a number of interesting persons.’

‘Certainly not overworking. I haven’t had a case worth mentioning since that affair down at Sudeley Hall.’

Lord Marlinworth laid down a sandwich with some deliberation and tapped delicately with two fingers on the rosewood table before him. His appearance was so identical with that of the earl in a musical comedy,
that
Nigel could never look at him for long without pinching himself.

‘Ter-tum,’ said Lord Marlinworth, ‘that was the affair at the preparatory school, if my memory serves me. The newspapers made considerable stir about it. I have not had the acquaintance of any schoolmasters, not since my salad days. Excellent fellows, no doubt. Though I can only deprecate the effeminacy which I see creeping into education today. “Spare the rod”, you know, “spare the rod”. I believe a connection of ours is engaged in the teaching profession, headmaster of some quite reputable school—Winchester, is it? or Rugby? The name escapes my memory for the moment.’

Nigel escaped any further memories of Lord Marlinworth, for at this moment his uncle, Sir John Strangeways, was shown in. Sir John had been the favourite brother of Nigel’s father, and on the latter’s death Sir John had become the boy’s guardian. In a few years a bond of the deepest attachment had grown up between the two. Sir John was a man of rather less than medium height: he had a thick sandy moustache and large hands, and his clothing gave one always the impression that he had just changed, hastily and unwillingly, out of an old gardening coat. His bearing, on the other hand, was brisk, compact, self-assured and somehow invigorating, like that of a family doctor or a competent psychiatrist: contrasting in turn with this were his eyes, which held the remote horizon look of the dreamer. Whatever deduction as to his
calling
one might have made from these contradictory characteristics, one would almost certainly not have hit on the correct one. Sir John was neither a landscape gardener, a poet, or a physician: he was, in actual fact, Assistant Commissioner of Police.

He stumped briskly into the room, kissed Lady Marlinworth, clapped her husband on the back, and cocked his head at Nigel.

‘Well, Elizabeth! Well, Herbert! Been looking for you, Nigel. Rang up your flat, and they told me you were over here. Got a job for you. Ah, a cup of tea. Thanks, Elizabeth. So you’ve not got into the habit of cocktails at teatime yet.’ His eyes twinkled quizzically at the old lady. He was in some ways a simple soul, and could never deny himself the pleasure of a leg-pull.

‘Cocktails at teatime! My dear John! What a horrible idea! Cocktails, indeed! Why, I remember my dear father practically turning a young man out of the house because he asked for one before dinner. My father’s sherry, of course, was famous all over the country, which made it still worse. I’m afraid Scotland Yard is getting you into bad habits, John.’

The old lady bridled, secretly delighted to be thought capable of the excesses of fast young things. Lord Marlinworth tapped discreetly upon the table and spoke with the air of one who understands all and can pardon all.

‘Ah, yes; cocktails. A drink imported, I am told, from America. The custom of drinking cocktails at
all
hours of the day is on the increase, undoubtedly, amongst certain sections of society. I have always found a good sherry sufficient for my needs, but I dare say these American beverages are not unpalatable.
Tempora mutantur
. We live in times of rapid change. In my young days a man had time to savour life, to roll it round his tongue, like an old brandy. But now these bright young people take it in gulps. Well, well. We must not stand in the way of Progress.’

Lord Marlinworth sat back again and made a benign gesture with his right hand, as though permitting Progress to resume its advance.

‘Are you going down to Chatcombe for Christmas?’ asked Sir John.

‘Yes, we are leaving town tomorrow. We think of going in the car: the trains are so disagreeably full at this time of the year.’

‘Come across your new tenant at the Dower House yet?’

‘We have not had the pleasure of meeting him personally yet,’ replied Elizabeth Marlinworth. ‘He had unexceptionable references, of course; but, really, he is quite an embarrassingly famous young man. We seem to have done nothing but answer questions about him since he took the house. Don’t we, Herbert? It quite taxes my powers of invention.’

‘And who is this famous young man?’ asked Nigel.

‘Not so young as all that. Famous, if you like. Fergus O’Brien,’ said Sir John.

Nigel whistled. ‘Great Scott!
The
Fergus O’Brien? The legendary airman. The Mystery Man who Retired from Life of Daredevil Adventure to Seclusion of English Countryside. I’d no idea that he’d made the Dower House his hermitage—’

‘If you had come to visit your aunt lately, you would have heard,’ Lady Marlinworth rebuked mildly.

‘But how wasn’t it in the papers? They generally follow him about like a private detective. All they said was that he’d retired somewhere into the country.’

‘Oh, they were squared,’ said Sir John. ‘There were reasons. Well, you two,’ he continued, ‘if you’ll excuse us. I’ll take Nigel into the study. We’ve got to confabulate.’

BOOK: Thou Shell of Death
5.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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