Friday, October 3, 2014

A Country House at War--with Murder, of Course: Toper's End (1942), by GDH and Margaret Cole

The last detective novel that was authored by GDH and Margaret Cole--this one primarily by GDH, or Douglas, as he was known--is Toper's End (1942), a murder mystery that takes place over a few days at Excalibur House, the country house of Dr. Percy Sambourne, a wealthy and eccentric chemist.

Toper's End (1942) saw the end of the Coles'
series of detective novels, started in 1923
Toper's End has a large gallery of characters, many of them named after individuals from literature, music composers or economists. Regular inmates of Excalibur House are, besides Dr. Sambourne, his research assistant, David Oman; his secretary, Mary Philip; and his domestic servants, Mr. and Mrs. Mudge. Additionally, at the time of the murder there are also seven Continental European refugees to whom Dr. Sambourne has given refuge (five--Franck, Gluck, the Meyerbeers and Rossini--named after composers) and four visiting guests: Dr. Sambourne's surviving sister, Queenie Moggridge, and her two children, Patricia and Gurth; and his and Queenie's brother-in-law, George Potts.

Oh, and Queenie Moggridge's estranged husband, Rowland, pops up too, at dinner, drunk (he's the "toper" of the title). However, he promptly pops off too!  The next day he is found dead in bed, poisoned two different ways. Meanwhile Dr. Sambourne has been poisoned too (just one way), but he's not dead--not yet, anyway!

Excalibur House is nostalgically located by Cole in rural "Brigshire," the setting for two of his earlier detective novels, Corpse in Canonicals (1930) and End of an Ancient Mariner (1933). In Toper's End, as in those two earlier novels, Colonel Hubert Walsh, chief constable of the county, and his flirtatious wife, Emily, appear; but it is the Coles' most famous series detective, Superintendent Henry Wilson, who solves the case, aided by his occasional attendant Watson, Dr. Michael Prendergast (the pair appear together in the earlier The Man from the River, 1928, and The Missing Aunt, 1938, as well as sixteen short stories).

Toper's End is an enjoyable wartime country house mystery.  The presence of Continental European refugee intellectuals adds a new wrinkle to the classic country house mystery formula, allowing Cole to satirize English xenophobia and anti-Semitism of that time (this is reminiscent of some episodes of the British detective series Foyle's War).  However, it must be admitted that the author does not favorably portray all the refugees.

The puzzle is enjoyable and the writing entertaining, making the novel a pleasing swan song in that form for the Coles and for Supt. Wilson (he appears in a later-published short story, "Birthday Gifts," though this tale may have been written earlier, in the late 1920s or 1930s).

I'm not as sure as Wilson that his case would hold up in court, however. Certainly Wilson's method of extracting information from a witness is one I have never encountered elsewhere in crime literature!

11 comments:

  1. Thanks for all the info about the Coles' and their books - I suspect I may have had some of these in Italian translation as they are so hard to find in English now - love the covers chum!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. And those are my copies, Sergio--you can tell because they are so worn!

      Delete
  2. I have the Coles on my list of authors to search for...but I haven't yet been lucky enough to stumble across one in my used books hunts. This one sounds intriguing and makes me all the more eager to find one.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Me, too. I want to read these authors, but haven't run into any books by them. My husband pointed me here because he knows I especially love country house mysteries.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Bev, Tracy, I've recommended the Coles' books to publishers, but the estates have to be willing to cooperate! I think a couple will be showing up in print soon, however.

    Not Toper's End, though, unfortunately. That one is very rare too!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Curtis, I think you should know that you are responsible for a deep gloom that has settled over the inter-library loan department of my local library. But I'm not telling them your name ;-) It's going to take everything they've got and then some to get me reading copies of some of these books!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, let's hope they get reprinted soon, so as to make it easier on those librarians!

      Delete
  6. Funny, you should say this title is rare. It's the Cole title I come across more often than any other in used book shops! You want to talk about a rare title? Try to find a copy of GREEK TRAGEDY. I had one, sold it, and have never found one since. That'll learn me!

    I hope that BURGLARS IN BUCKS is one of those soon-to-be-reprinted books. DEAD MAN'S WATCH would be a good choice too. It always surprises me that the Coles' mystery books weren't reprinted by Pocket or Dell back when they were alive and the books were relatively new. They were perfect choices for them. I can't think of a single Cole detective novel that got a US paperback edition though many of them were reprinted in hardcover by G&D and later Sun Dial Press (Doubleday Crime Club's reprint subsidiary). I wonder if the writers themselves were that controlling of their work back then.

    BTW -- read my first Anne Hocking mystery and I guess I picked a good one because I really enjoyed it. Make sure to read my post today if you haven't already. I may just go find some more of her books to see how Austen grows and changes over the series. He's one of those wise, humanistic policeman characters I can grow fond of.

    ReplyDelete
  7. John, I've liked some Hockings but some others not at all, so she seems one of those variable writers.

    It's funny I've seen Green Tragedy more than Toper's End. Counterpoint Murder seems another rare one that I liked. The English edition of Toper's End has a house plan, it was omitted in the American edition.

    Yeah, the Coles really seem to have dropped off after they stopped writing mysteries in the 1940s, yet they had done very well before in hardcover in the US. They were reprinted in pb in UK in the 1940s too.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I learned a new word: toper. Thought I knew all the good drinking-related words.

    ReplyDelete