I initially read The Smiler with the Knife more than 15 years ago, but that one reading has always stuck with me. It is a successful book on all fronts, as great entertainment, as a propulsive exercise in episodic and through-arc suspense, and as an engaging character study of allies and enemies featuring Georgia at its center. In some areas it surpasses John Buchan’s cornerstone man-on-the-run spy thriller The 39 Steps (1915), as Blake makes sure to define the very high stakes of the game and underscore the very real possibility that Georgia could lose the battle against an alert, wide-reaching, and formidable opponent. By the way, the narrative from the first chapter and throughout the story assures the reader that the heroine’s success is an eventual fait accompli; as early as page 14, for example, we learn that
...while it was not reasonable to suppose that a notice from a Rural District Council could cause anyone much trouble — let alone alter the course of history, or that England might be saved by the cutting of a hedge -- yet so it turned out.
That said, The Smiler with the Knife works even better as a grand entertainment than as a political cautionary tale. For it is a story that pushes forward, one adventure following the next, with wonderfully assured pacing and plotting. Nigel and Georgia Strangeways are first pulled into the mystery after finding a rather ordinary cameo locket along the hedgerow of their house in the country. An oddly acting neighbor arrives to claim it, and the photo of the middle-aged woman inside the locket proves the unlikely catalyst that soon has Georgia investigating a secret society called The English Banner.
Characterization is particularly good in this adventure, and Blake allows some of the heroes and villains that Georgia encounters to make a strong impression on her and the reader. As the suspected leader of the government uprising – the secret society is keeping both plans and players a mystery from the public until the time to act – the dangerously soft-spoken Chilton Canteloe makes a worthy target of investigation, while the charming cricketer Peter Braithwaite becomes one of Georgia’s few trusted confidantes, demonstrating his courage and duty to country to the end. Smiler can also claim to be one of those rare thrillers that is genuinely page-turning. If, like Georgia, the reader gets fully immersed into the tale, the conclusion will likely be a race to the finish for all involved.
The prolific GAD genre bloggers Kate and Nick also have reviews of The Smiler with the Knife. Check out crossexaminingcrime and The Grandest Game in the World.