First, I have to say this is not really a forgotten book. It’s been in print one way or another ever since it was published more than 70 years ago.
I read Minute for Murder by Nicholas Blake (Collins, 1947) over the weekend. It is the eighth Nigel Strangeways and the first one Blake released after a hiatus during World War II. In this particular book, which takes place in the last months of the war, Strangeways leads the editorial unit of the fictional Ministry of Morale, much like Blake himself did during the war. I have to wonder just how much of this story is true. He pokes great fun at the Permanent Civil Servants. The bureaucracy is no match for the creative minds assembled for the war effort. My favorites are the writer who dates all of his internal correspondence using the liturgical calendar of the Church of England. Thus, a memo is dated “Tuesday before the Feast Day of St. Petronella, Virgin and Martyr.” This failure to follow the standard caused no end of consternation among the long-term civil servants.
The other most wonderful temporary civil servant is the one who got tired of the false incoming bomb alarms, which sent the staff hurtling down the stairs into the basement every other hour, only to come back 15 minutes later when no bombing occurred. His solution was to climb through a window onto a two-foot ledge jutting out from the building several stories above the ground and sit with his binoculars watching for German air planes. When he shouted, staff knew the alert was valid. HR became most unhappy with his activities, pointed out that this self-appointed duty was not what he was hired for, and threatened to track the time spent in this unsanctioned task and dock his pay. He responded by calculating the time wasted by all staff in leaving their desks for false bombing alerts to trundle downstairs and back again, then demanding to be paid for the money the Government saved through his efforts. The resulting interoffice correspondence was a source of great frustration to the Permanent Civil Servants and makes for hilarious reading.
At some point of course Blake had to get down to business and create a mystery. Here he offers one in which the secretary to the division head is poisoned in front of about a dozen people. She had been more or less engaged to someone in the department before he left for the Front, where after a time he was declared missing, presumed dead. As the war wound down, he returned home, quite alive and in fine fettle. During his absence, she became involved with the married division head, who could not make up his mind to leave his wife for his secretary. The approaching dissolution of the ministry meant that nearly everyone would lose their jobs, and their present living arrangements would no longer be tenable, thereby forcing the division head to make a choice.
Suspects included the returning ex-fiance, who was assumed to be wildly jealous, and the division head’s wife, who also was assumed to be consumed with bitterness. Strangeways is reluctant to participate in an investigation of the people he had been working with for years, some of whom had become his friends. An involved, layered tale ensues, demonstrating Blake’s time away from mystery writing in no way impaired his story-telling ability.
In Neil Nyren’s essay for CrimeReads, he cites this book as one of Blake’s three best. https://crimereads.com/nicholas-blake-a-crime-readers-guide-to-the-classics/?fbclid=IwAR0KStFdkXc1kMiSGDFfhFpU7DTr0N7WahIT65W_WDNL2jwNIcREriQwyak