(See other articles in this category ‘Fiction of 1939’ including Introduction
This is the fifth in a series of twenty detective stories written by Day-Lewis as Nicholas Blake, concerning the literary detective Nigel Stangeways. In ‘The Smiler with The Knife’ the author turns away from the purely detective genre to write a high class political thriller in which the leading role is taken by Nigel’s wife, Georgia, a well-known explorer/traveller.
Day-Lewis was a man of the Left and a member of the Communist Party for a period in the 1930s. The subject of this thriller is a possible threat from the far Right to destroy parliamentary democracy and impose a crypto-fascist dictatorship. Patriotism is expressed here as a defence of traditional English liberties, tolerance and way of life from such a right-wing threat.
The story is very well written, as you would expect of a poet and man of letters, and the right-wing conspiracy is well-conceived and believable. Georgia’s role is to ingratriate herself with the conspirators, discover the identity of its leadership and the details of the conspiracy. The story moves along at a cracking pace, rather like a John Buchan novel, with the heroine moving from one tight corner to another before a final showdown.
The author has great fun describing the ‘old fogeyness’, Little Englander-ism and aristocratic mysticism of the English Banner; the ‘front’ organization behind which its inner leadership seeks to impose an authoritarian state loosely modelled on the continental models of Mussolini and Hitler. The political context for the story is a coming general election set in the near future in which the return of a ‘popular front’ government opposed to the policy of Appeasement is likely to be elected.
The ring leaders of the right wing conspiracy are preparing to mount a political coup before this can happen, headed by a charismatic leader with popular appeal, Lord Chilton Canteloe, a peer with mining interests. In order to undermine the elected government and prepare the ground for his coup, Canteloe and his financial backers propose a scheme setting up a national network of cooperatives to provide work for the unemployed, increase the supply of domestically produced food and build deep underground shelters against the threat of large-scale bombing of civilians. Providing solutions to the three main areas of public concern, mass-unemployment, the threat to food supply in time of war and security from air-raids, the scheme is well-crafted to undermine support for parliamentary government.
‘As the year turned towards Autumn… Canteloe’s campaign for his unemployment plan alternated with European crisis and rumours of crisis…public opinion was bewildered and growing resentful. The European dictators continued on their triumphal path. Our own government, thought the man in the street, seemed to have lost its nerve entirely: it made concession after concession abroad, while at home it was dilly-dallying over the Chilton plan that had so kindled public enthusiasm.’ (p.190)
As the story reaches its end Georgia uncovers the identity of the leader and the details of the plot but is herself exposed and goes on the run. There is a desperate race to keep one step ahead of the secret organization, which has supporters in the police force and other civil organizations. As you would expect the tables are turned and our heroine emerges battered but triumphant. Afterwards Georgia reflects:
‘I’m safe, I’m safe, I’m safe! I’d forgotten what the word “safety” meant. We’re all safe, all the decent, ordinary, hard-working people, the people who make England…’ (p.278).