Cecil Day Lewis was one of Britain’s leading 20th century poets, his career culminating in his appointment as Poet Laureate. He was also a prolific and exceptionally interesting author of detective novels, under the pseudonym Nicholas Blake.
As a crime writer he is best known for the books featuring amateur sleuth Nigel Strangeways. As you’d expect they have a somewhat literary bent but what really makes Nicholas Blake’s books stand out is the element of moral ambiguity that he is almost always able to include. This makes Blake slightly unusual among golden age English detective story writers.
A Tangled Web is not one of the Nigel Strangeways novels and it’s a particularly unconventional crime story. Published in 1956, in many ways it’s more akin to the crime novels of Graham Greene than to the mainstream of British crime fiction with moral problems and character flaws being more important than the plot. Although in fact A Tangled Web has a clever plot and can certainly be enjoyed simply as crime fiction.
A young girl named Daisy loses her job as a result of a chance encounter with a mysterious and very attractive young man. She may have lost her job but she doesn’t mind at all since she has fallen instantly in love. And Hugo reciprocates her feelings.
Hugo cares nothing for the rules of society. How he makes his living is a mystery at first to Daisy but it soon transpires that he is a cat burglar. Hugo is mostly kind and attentive and introduces Daisy to an excitingly different way of life, but he is troubled by bad dreams and he has a very short temper. This proves to be an especially unfortunate attribute when a police inspector is shot dead during a bungled burglary. Hugo falls under suspicion and is arrested, and faces the very real possibility of ending his criminal career at the end of a hangman’s rope. But is he really a killer? Or simply the victim of the tendency of the police to jump to conclusions when faced with an obvious suspect?
A Tangled Web features a particularly chilling villain, and this villain plays an unexpected role. Most of all though it is an intensely moving story of loyalty and betrayal.
If you have a taste for slightly off-beat crime fiction this one is well worth seeking out. It was republished in the Pan Classic Crime series a few years back and is reasonably easy to find. And anything by Nicholas Blake is worth reading.