Read The Beast Must Die Online
Authors: Nicholas Blake
Part One: The Diary of Felix Lane
Part Two: Set Piece on a River
Part Three: The Body of this Death
More from Vintage Classic Crime
About the Book
Respected crime writer Frank Cairns plots the perfect murder – a murder that he himself will commit.
Cairns intends to murder the hit-and-run driver who killed his young son, but when his intended victim is found dead and Cairns becomes the prime suspect, the author insists that he has been framed. An old friend of Cairns calls in private detective Nigel Strangeways, who must unravel a fiendishly plotted mystery if he is to discover what really happened to George Rattery.
The Beast Must Die
is one of Nicholas Blake’s most acclaimed novels and was picked by the
as one of the 1,000 novels everyone must read.
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
Thou Shell of Death
There’s Trouble Brewing
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
EILEEN AND TONY
The Beast Must Die
The Diary of Felix Lane
20 June 1937
I AM GOING
to kill a man. I don’t know his name, I don’t know where he lives, I have no idea what he looks like. But I am going to find him and kill him …
You must pardon me this melodramatic opening, gentle reader. It sounds just like a first sentence out of one of my own detective novels, doesn’t it? Only this story is never going to be published, and the ‘gentle reader’ is a polite convention. No, not perhaps just a polite convention. I propose to commit what the world calls ‘a crime’. Every criminal, who has no accomplice, needs a confidante; the loneliness, the appalling isolation and suspense of crime are too much for one man to contain within him. Sooner or later he will blurt it all out. Or, if his will stands firm, his superego betrays him – that strict moralist within who plays cat-and-mouse with the furtive, the timorous or the cocksure alike, forcing the criminal into slips of the tongue, luring him into overconfidence, planting evidence against him, playing the agent provocateur. All the forces of law and order would be powerless against one man absolutely without conscience. But deep inside us all there exists that compulsion to make atonement – a sense of guilt, the traitor within the gates. We are betrayed by what is false within. If
tongue refuses to confess, the involuntary actions will. That is why the criminal returns to the scene of his crime. That is why I am writing this diary. You, my imaginary reader,
hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère
, are to be my confessor. I shall keep nothing back from you. It is you who will save me from the gallows, if anyone can.
It’s easy enough to envisage murder, sitting here in the bungalow James lent me so that I could recuperate after my nervous breakdown. (No, gentle reader, I am not mad. You can dismiss that from your mind at once. I was never saner. Guilty, but not insane.) Easy enough to envisage murder, looking out of the window at Golden Cap glowing in the evening sun, and the crisped leaf-metal waves of the bay, and the curved arm of the Cobb enfolding the baby boats a hundred feet below me. Because, you see, they all say Martie to me. If Martie had not been killed, he and I would be going for picnics on Golden Cap; he would be splashing into the sea in that bright red bathing-dress he was so proud of; and today would have been his seventh birthday, and I had promised to teach him how to sail the dinghy when he was seven.
Martin was my son. One evening, six months ago, he was crossing the road outside our house. He had gone into the village to buy some sweets. For him it could only have been a paralysing blaze of headlights round the corner, a moment’s nightmare, and then the impact turning everything to darkness for ever. His body was hurled into the ditch. He was dead at once,
before I got to him. The bag of sweets was sprinkled over the road. I remember I began to pick them up – there didn’t seem to be anything else to do – till I found his blood on one of them. After that, I was ill for quite a time: brain fever, nervous breakdown or something, they called it. The fact is, of course, that I didn’t want to live. Martie was all I had – Tessa died giving birth to him.
The motorist who killed Martie did not stop. The police have failed to trace him. They say he must have been going fifty round that blind corner, for the body to have been thrown and injured like it was. He is the man I have got to find and kill.
I don’t think I can write any more today.
I HAD PROMISED
to keep nothing back from you, gentle reader, and I’ve broken my promise already. But it’s a thing I have had to keep back from myself, too, till I was well enough to face it.
Was it my fault?
Ought I to have let Martie go into the village alone?
There. Thank God that’s out. The agony of writing it down has nearly driven the nib through the paper. I feel faint, as if an arrowhead had been extracted from festering flesh; but the pain itself is a kind of relief. Let me look at the barb that was slowly killing me.
If I had not given Martie that twopence, if I had gone with him that night, or sent Mrs Teague, he would be alive now. We would be sailing in the bay, or fishing for prawns from the end of the Cobb, or scrambling down the landslide among those huge yellow flowers – what are they called? – Martie always wanted to know the name of everything, but now that I’m by myself there doesn’t seem any point in finding out.
I wanted him to grow up independent. I knew that, when Tessa died, there was the danger of my swamping him with my love. I tried to train him to do things by himself and for himself: I had to let him take risks. But he had been down to the village alone dozens of times; he used to play with the village children all the morning when I was working. He was sensible about crossing the street, and anyhow there’s very little traffic on our road. Who could have known that devil would come smashing round the corner? – showing off to some bloody woman passenger, I suppose, or drunk. And then he hadn’t the guts to stop and take his medicine.
Tessa darling, was it my fault? You wouldn’t have wanted me to wrap him in cotton wool, would you? You didn’t like to be cosseted and looked after either; you were independent as hell. No. My reason tells me that I was right. But I can’t quite get out of my head the hand clutching the burst paper bag. It doesn’t accuse me, but it won’t let me rest – it’s a gentle, importuning ghost. My revenge will be for myself alone.
I wonder did the coroner make any censorious comments on my ‘negligence’. They didn’t let me see the paper in the nursing home. All I know is that a verdict of manslaughter was brought in against some person or persons unknown. Manslaughter! Baby-killing. Even if they had caught him, he’d only have got a term of imprisonment, and then he’d have been free to run amok again – unless they suspended his licence for life, and do they ever do that? I’ve got to find him and put him out of harm’s way. His murderer ought to be crowned with flowers (where have I read something like that?) as a public benefactor. No, don’t start kidding yourself. What you intend has nothing to do with abstract justice.
But I wonder what the coroner said. Perhaps it’s this that has kept me lingering on here, when I’m really quite well again, nervous of what the neighbours may be saying. Look there goes the man who let his child get killed: coroner said so. Oh, damn them and the coroner! They’re going to have some reason for calling me a murderer before long, so what in God’s name does it matter?
The day after tomorrow I’ll go home. That’s settled. I’ll write to Mrs Teague tonight and tell her to get the cottage ready. I have faced the worst thing about Martie’s death now, and I honestly believe I have nothing to blame myself for. The cure is completed. I can devote my whole heart to the one thing that is left for me to do.
JAMES PAID ME
a flying visit this afternoon, ‘just to see how you’re getting on’. Nice of him. He was surprised that I looked so much better. All due to the salubrious situation of his bungalow, I said. I could scarcely tell him that I’d found something to live for – it might have led to awkward questions. One of them, at least, I couldn’t answer myself. ‘When did you first decide to murder X?’ is the sort of question (like ‘when did you first fall in love with me?’) which needs a whole treatise to answer it adequately. And would-be murderers, unlike lovers, are not so keen on talking about themselves – in spite of the evidence of this diary to the contrary. They do their talking after the event – too much of it, poor wretches!
Well, my ghostly confessor, I suppose it’s time you had some personal details about me – age, height, weight, colour of eyes, qualifications for the post of murderer, that kind of thing. I am thirty-five years old, five foot eight, brown eyes; usual expression of face – a kind of sombre benevolence like the barn owl – or so Tessa used to tell me. My hair, by some odd freak, has not yet turned grey. My name is Frank Cairnes. I used to occupy a desk (I will not say ‘work’) in the Ministry of Labour, but five years ago a legacy and my own laziness persuaded me to hand in my resignation and retire to the country cottage where Tessa and I had always wanted to live. ‘She should have died
,’ as the bard says. Pottering about in my garden and my dinghy was too much of a good thing for even my capacity for idleness, so I started writing detective novels – under the name of ‘Felix Lane’. They are rather good ones, as it happens, and bring me in a surprising amount of cash, but I am unable to convince myself that detective fiction is a serious branch of literature, so Felix Lane has always been absolutely anonymous. My publishers are pledged not to disclose the secret of his identity. After their initial horror at the idea of a writer not wanting to be connected with the tripe he turns out, they quite enjoyed making a mystery of it. Good publicity, this mystery stuff, they thought, with the simple credulity of their kind, and started whacking it up into quite a stunt. Though who the hell of my ‘rapidly growing public’ (the publishers’ phrase) cares two hoots who Felix Lane is in reality I should very much like to know.