The Dreadful Hollow by Nicholas Blake (Collins, 1953) is the 10th book featuring Nigel Strangeways, an occasional poet who spends more time looking into things for people than writing verse. In this outing Strangeways is retained by Sir Archibald Blick, a wealthy financier, to investigate the outbreak of anonymous letters in a village, where Blick’s sons live and where Blick has significant business interests. The letters are especially vicious, causing at least one suicide and great distress throughout the small town. Although Strangeways eliminated a number of suspects pretty quickly based on their access, or lack thereof, to the logistics of the local mail system, what puzzled him was how well-informed the anonymous letter writer was. At least one letter contained information that no one in the village could know. Figuring out the source of the inflammatory innuendo was of great concern to him, although his client just wants the letters stopped.
Among the lives being wrecked by the letters are two sisters, one of which was courted by one of Blick’s sons years ago and the other whom he is courting now. Neither match is acceptable to the mogul, who is a great fan of eugenics and he considers the family of the two sisters to be genetically tainted.
With the entire village on tenterhooks, the ensuing murder was not surprising but the choice of victim was. This story is classic Strangeways in every aspect.
I asked the denizens of Golden Age Detection, a Facebook group whose members know everything and make great reading recommendations, if the poison pen letter writer always targeted a village and they seem to think so. There was less consensus on whether the anonymous letter writer is strictly a Golden Age plot device, although largely it appears to be. They offer the following as examples:
- Death of a Poison Pen by M. C. Beaton
- The Bells of Old Bailey by Dorothy Bowers
- Beware Your Neighbour by Miles Burton
- The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie
- The Long Divorce by Edmund Crispin
- Welcome Death by Glyn Daniel
- Night at the Mocking Widow by Carter Dickson
- Close Quarters by Michael Gilbert
- “The Possibility of Evil” a short story by Shirley Jackson
- The House of the Arrow by A E Mason
- The Crimson Madness of Little Doom by Mark McShane
- Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers
- Poison in the Pen by Patricia Wentworth
- Fear Stalks the Village by Ethel Lina White