Career and Works

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

G. D. H. Cole’s career as a writer of mystery and detective fiction began in 1923 as a cure for the boredom that attended a long recuperation from a mild case of pneumonia. Detective stories were the rage among members of the British intelligentsia in the years between the two world wars, and Cole, who was an avid reader of mystery stories, proposed to try his hand at writing one. Spurred by his wife’s contention that he would not finish it, Cole quickly completed The Brooklyn Murders (1923). It marked the first appearance of Superintendent Henry Wilson, and it was the only work to which Cole ever willingly made substantial revisions at the request of a publisher. The original draft supposedly contained too many murders.

Already well established as an author of numerous works in the areas of economics and politics, Cole had no difficulty finding a publisher for his first novel. The plot is a simple one, and to a student of detection the murders of the two nephews of Sir Vernon Brooklyn, who are also his heirs, are easily solved. What is important in this work is the examination of greed as a motive for crime. Again and again the Coles would explore this weakness of a capitalist society and its malevolent influence on the human character.

The Death of a Millionaire

A second novel, The Death of a Millionaire (1925), marked the beginning of the partnership between Cole and his wife. More radical than her husband, and often more intense in her espousal of socialist economic principles, Margaret Cole nevertheless possessed a finely honed sense of humor that somewhat softened her criticism of capitalism in the mysteries she would coauthor.

Corruption in the world of business formed the theme of this second novel, and it is particularly interesting because the reader is given the socialist view of the sordid world of finance with a touch of satire. This lesson in leftist economic theory in no way detracts from the story. The element of humor continued to be an important part of the mysteries written by the Coles. Many of their characters exhibit that charm and wit so often associated with the British upper classes. The repartee of the gentleman’s club and the college senior common room is often echoed in the remarks of the men and women who people their books. With their second mystery the Coles began to experiment with techniques for developing memorable characters using a minimum of words. Over the years they were able to create a host of major and minor actors in their mystery novels who were genuinely alive to their readers.

The Blatchington Tangle

This talent for creating memorable portraits with a minimum of words is ably demonstrated in The Blatchington Tangle (1926) when Henry Wilson, the professional police officer, encounters Everard Blatchington, the amateur sleuth. Among the protagonists in this mystery is a rather obnoxious American who immediately becomes a suspect when the body of a crooked financier is found in Lord Blatchington’s library. Although G. D. H. Cole may not be accurately described as anti-American, he did have suspicions about the economic policies of the United States in the years after World War I. This attitude hardened into open hostility during and following World War II. His American suspect seems to combine in his personality every unpleasant characteristic associated with his fellow countrymen.

Greek Tragedy

It is interesting to contrast this almost pathological distrust of capitalism in all of its forms with the apologetic tone assumed by the Coles with respect to communism. In Greek Tragedy (1939), they offered their readers a glowing endorsement of the Left. In a workers’ paradise there might be no Blatchington rubies to tempt a criminal to commit murder.

The Murder at Crome House

With the publication of The Murder at Crome House (1927), the Coles seemed to settle down to the writing of detective fiction that would appeal to an ever-growing audience, instead of using the mystery novel as a device for pleading the cause of socialism. Drawing on their varied experiences,...

(The entire section is 1698 words.)