Tuesday, October 05, 2010

“The Beast Must Die,” written by Nicholas Blake 1938 “Que Lu Bete Meure,” directed by Claude Chabrol 1969

Nicholas Blake was the pen name for Cecil Day-Lewis (1904-1972), a distinguished poet (so distinguished that he was named Britain’s Poet Laureate in 1968) who started writing his first mystery to help pay for a leaky roof, since poetry wasn’t then and isn’t now the most lucrative of pursuits. Most of his novels centered on an amateur detective, the scholarly Nigel Strangeways, a character modeled in part on Day-Lewis’ friend and fellow poet, W. H. Auden. And yes, if you’re wondering, Day-Lewis was the father of Daniel.
“The Beast Must Die” is a superb psychological thriller that involves the reader from the first line: “I am going to kill a man . . . I have no idea what he looks like. But I am going to find him and kill him.” This is from the diary of a widower whose young son has been killed by a hit-and-run driver in the English countryside, and for the first third of the book Day-Lewis tells the story through these diary entries. Like Patricia Highsmith, Day-Lewis seduces us into rooting for the would-be killer, particularly after the narrator cleverly discovers the “beast”—who turns out to be exactly that.
Once Nigel Strangeways appears, the point of view transfers from the diary’s first-person account. There is depth of character here, and themes of guilt, betrayal and vengeance woven throughout, and the ending is a surprise. Day-Lewis’ mysteries deserve to be back in print.
Although Chabrol (1930-2010) changed the locale to the French seaside and set his movie in the year it was made, he hewed closely to the novel. Like Day-Lewis, he makes you feel the father’s pain at the loss of his son. There is no Nigel Strangeways here, just a smart local cop--who proves in the end to be as compassionate as his English counterpart. The acting is first-rate, and Chabrol, like Day-Lewis, makes his characters real.


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