Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Bringing Coles to New Readers: Shedunnit and Me and Douglas and Margaret Cole

I was pleased to participate in a Shedunnit podcast this month on the spousal mystery writing team of GDH (Douglas) and Margaret Cole, who were active in the English mystery world from 1923 into the mid-1940s, publishing twenty-eight detective novels and four books of short fiction, plus some odds and ends here and there, a few additional, uncollected short stories and a novella.  

During the Golden Age of detective fiction the Coles--prominent left-wing intellectuals who wrote crime fiction for kicks and a modest competence--were well-known in the mystery field, with most of their books published in the US as well as the UK.  

Although the authors when murderously moonlighting were dismissed as "unserious" about life by that ever-reliable Silver Age mystery writer, critic and occasional obtuse chowderhead Julian Symons, the Coles' mystery fiction did in fact include leftist political and social commentary that was uncommon in detective fiction at the time time.

One of their books (the highly satirical The Affair at Aliquid) even earned them a testy scolding in print in the Sunday Times from Dorothy L. Sayers for over harshly mocking Britain's clergy and aristocracy.  She Who Must Be Obeyed was Decidedly Not Amused.

Although the Coles signed both their names to most of their detective fiction, in fact the books were written primarily by one or the other, Margaret writing ten of them and Douglas writing eighteen.  (However, the non-writing spouse for any given volume would read over the completed manuscript and make suggestions.)  

The spouses similarly divided authorship of their sizeable body of short crime fiction, which includes, to my knowledge, nearly forty short stories and a novella. Their two most notable series characters are Superintendent Henry Wilson, a Scotland Yard detective in the mold of Freeman Wills Crofts' Inspector French (though he actually preceded French into fiction by a year) and Everard Blatchington, an insouciant amateur sleuth, like Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey.  

Douglas Cole wrote the first Cole mystery, The Brooklyn Murders (1923), on a dare from his wife while convalescing from illness.  It shows hugely the influence of Freeman Crofts, with a policeman sleuth and ample alibi busting.  

Next, also from Douglas' hand, came the altogether more original The Death of a Millionaire (1925), a murder mystery that is also a biting satire of English Jazz Age political corruption, complete with a unrequited same-sex love story.  (Cole himself was bisexually--arguably more homosexually--inclined, though he fathered three children with Margaret before he lost interest in sex altogether.)  The next year came the very amusing country house mystery The Blatchington Tangle, which decidedly resembles Agatha Christie's The Secret of Chimneys, published the previous year.

After that Margaret got in the game, with the non-series The Murder at Crome House (1927), which Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor in A Catalogue of Crime proclaimed "the Coles' masterpiece...terse, witty, and to the point."  Four of her ten novel-length mysteries would feature Everard Blatchington, introduced in Douglas' Blatchington Tangle.  Her best mysteries, in my view, aside from Crome House, are Burglars in Bucks (1930), a witty epistolary crime novel like Dorothy L. Sayers' The Documents in the Case from the same year, Death of a Star (1932), a proto police procedural, Death in the Quarry (1934), Scandal at School (1935) and Counterpoint Murder (1940).  All but Crome and Counterpoint feature Everard Blatchington.  Counterpoint is arguable Superintendent Wilson's greatest case.

Margaret also wrote the five short works that comprise the interesting book Mrs. Warrender's Profession (1938), which chronicles the cases of a Miss Marple/Miss Silver like elderly gentlewoman sleuth.  Mrs.  Warrender appears in a single Margaret Cole novel, her last, Knife in the Dark (1941).  

Douglas' best novels, in my view, are the aforementioned Death of a Millionaire and Blatchington Tangle, as well as The Man from the River (1928), Corpse in Canonicals (1930), which introduces Supt. Wilson's friends Hubert and Emily Welsh, The Brothers Sackville (1936), Disgrace to the College (1937), another Everard Blatchington mystery, and Double Blackmail (1939).  

Of the roughly forty Coles short crime stories, I think the Coles split those about evenly, with Margaret authoring the classic satire "A Lesson in Crime" and the very darkly shaded "Glass" and probably the excellent late novella Death of a Bride (1945).  

Douglas wrote some classics like "Supt. Wilson's Holiday," the ultimate "footprints" mystery and the racism-skewering "The Oxford Mystery," as well as "In a Telephone Cabinet" and "Birthday Gifts," a neat pair of gadgety mysteries reminiscent of John Rhode.

All in all, an ample and impressive crime fiction legacy that merits dignified repriting.

For more on the Coles's mystery writing see my book The Spectrum of English Murder, available for purchase here.  It's loaded with spoiler warnings, no fear!


  1. Had not heard of the Coles writing team before. Thanks for the pleasure of discovery which you provide, along with the photos of the book covers, nice, large and colorful!

    1. Pretty much scanned everything I still have by them in dj!

  2. I've only read three of their books, they were fun but I was a little surprised by their endings. I wonder if unusual means of bringing the killer to justice were typical in their books.

  3. I'm a long-term admirer of the Coles - but their detective books are so hard to find! I bought some very battered reading copies of a few on eBay recently, but I'd love some decent reprints.

  4. Late to the party, but congrats on the podcast guest spot! I just (re)listened, and it's always neat to hear what a blogger/writer sounds like, and it was even neater to learn about the now-obscure Coles.

    I see a few of their mysteries (including The Death of a Millionaire) are available through my inter-library loan system—I may have to put in a request or two...