Dress Down Sunday: Not the short-time tart…


book: The Widow’s Cruise by Nicholas Blake

published 1959

[Extracts taken from throughout the book]

widows cruise 3
‘She says for me to come to her cabin, and when I go there, she does not want it. She fights like a cat. It is their moods, they are crazy in their moods. And yet she had had a shower-bath, and she was naked. – disrobed: undraped’ said Nikki, airing his vocabulary with some complacence...

“With women,” announced Nikki, “I have the inexhaustible powers of Zeus the thunderer. And the music of love has many tempi.”

Widows Cruise 4

Nigel saw Melissa Blaydon, in her distinctive yellow bathing-helmet, throwing a beach ball to Peter…She was wearing only a bikini. She could afford to. Her brown skin was flawless, unwrinkled still.

Widows Cruise 2
Of middle height, her graceful carriage minimising a certain stockiness of figure, with high cheek bones and charming hollows beneath them, and a delicate brown complexion that, when she came closer, showed itself as a triumph of the cosmetic art, this woman had that air of sexual awareness which tells its own story. She wore a lemon-coloured linen suit and a wide white straw hat.

Widows Cruise

The dance began soon after 9.30. During the second foxtrot, Melissa Blaydon made her entrance. She was a breath-taking sight, in a gold and crimson sari.

commentary: Cruises are great venues for murder stories – varied passengers and crew, different places to visit, opportunities both for late-night assignations and for thowing someone overboard.

Nicholas Blake (aka Cecil Day Lewis – see this post for more about the author) certainly makes the most of all this in The Widow’s Cruise, he embraces the possibilities with enthusiasm. His sleuth Nigel Strangeways and partner Clare Massinger go on a Greek cruise - interestingly, Nigel ‘can’t speak Greek’, although it is revealed later that he studied Ancient Greek while at Oxford, which would get him a long way in modern Greece in fact. (They are not sharing a cabin, by the way, but seem at one point to sneak off to a secluded Greek beach to make love – that’s my understanding anyway).

The passengers include all kinds of difficult people – feuding academics, annoying child taking notes (we know what happens to THEM in crime stories), sisters of whom one is beautiful and rich and the other is sad and unhappy and possibly lesbian. The tour organizer is a philandering Greek.

The plot is nicely done though very easily guessable to some of us – partly because the solution  resembles hugely that in another book, a great favourite of mine, from a few years earlier, which I really can’t mention in the circs. There are many familiar tropes in it in fact – none of this is a criticism – but there is also this One Big Thing…

Lots of great 1959 details. I’m always alert to character name choices, and I liked that Melissa’s name showed that her father had classical interests (her sister’s name was Ianthe). This would be far from the case these days.

I always feel that Nicholas Blake is trying very hard to be open-minded and racy and have some risqué sex scenes, but he just doesn’t get it right. It’s not that I’m expecting 2018 views in a 1959 book, but he has a wince-making tone that that other writers (for example – on the whole – John Dickson Carr) do manage to avoid. Although Nikki, the Greek (male) cruise director featured above, was rather stereotyped, his sexual ways are treated with more kindness than any woman’s. Though I have to admit that this:
Whatever one might think of Melissa, she was surely not the short-time tart
did make me laugh.

I re-read this after Noah Stewart blogged on it recently – his post is (as ever) highly recommended (and anyway, how could you not want to read a post called Four Unpleasant Children, Part 2?).

I've used some covers of different editions of the book, as they Widows Cruise 5illustrate key points so nicely. AND we also have more mysterious beauty products (as in recent post on Michael Gilbert book) - this cover is from 1982, and the perfume in the foreground and the lipstick package behind it did not exist in 1959. I do realize that no-one but me cares about this kind of stuff.

Look out this week for more shipboard books on the blog…


  1. Rive Gauche! Unmistakable. My favourite a very long time ago: I thought it might turn me into Simone de Beauvoir. I remember enjoying this book, but yes, he doesn't quite strike the right tone, does he?

    1. I know just what you mean - I thought Rive Gauche was the most sophisticated thing ever when I was younger, partly because of that unfussy but striking packaging.

      I want to shake N. Blake up, because he could have written much better books I think - his poems show a lot more emotional intelligence. There's a couple of them I love...

  2. I'm sorry, Moira! My comment got eaten again! The gist of it was that I know what you mean about those 'wince' moments. Even so, I like Blake/ Day-Lewis' work. I especially like the dynamic between Strangeways and Clare.

    1. Oh Margot I can only apologize - I don't know what is wrong with that annoying Blogger, and yours are the comments I most don't want to lose.
      Yes, the books do have their moments - both good and bad!

  3. I am looking forward to reading this someday. I have enjoyed all the Nicholas Blake mysteries I have read recently, but I find some better than others. I have at least two (fairly) recent purchases set on cruise ships... that I would like to read sometime this year.

    1. Oh what are your other cruise ship books? Actually, save them - I am going to do a post on murder on shipboard this week, so you can add them to the comments there, if you don't mind!

  4. Interesting that this woman chose a sari...striking, certainly, but if you don't have a certain amount of experience at handling all those folds, they're rather difficult to wear.

    1. They are, but let's just say that she has her reasons! And obviously she wasn't worried about cultural appropriation in 1959....

  5. I'd pick this one up based on the cover. I wonder why....

    1. Indeed. And actually the cover is fair play, it's not one of those cases where the publisher has sexed it up.


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