G.D.H Cole and Margaret Cole were serious minded people. Conscientious Objectors to wars, economists, political theorists, and members of the Fabian Society, they wrote on such weighty subjects as labour and trade unionism wages and work conditions, war and its impact on society; but they also had a light-hearted side that made them write wrote mystery novels dealing with murders and burglaries. This fortnight I was lucky enough to read two of their books.
Burglars in Bucks, first published in 1930, deals with a burglary that takes place at the estate of Peter Gurney, a genial man, single-handedly bringing up his rather temperamental daughter, Maura Gurney. As the girl is coming-of-age, Gurney intends throwing up a grand party for her. Amongst the many guests invited for the same are Sir Hiram Watkins who with his pasty face and fat belly looks like the caricaturists’ idea of a war profiteer and his wife Doris who carries jewellery as though the good Baronet had laid out all his war’s gains in jewellery and was using his wife as a temporary show-room – and certainly it’s a roomy one; Jerry Wynn, a young man quite the comedian, letting off the most impossibly bad jokes at everybody, particularly at the War Profiteer; Chris Neverne, a sensible young woman who is a gym-instructress at a school, and has a private twinkle in her eye. There is also a shady couple: Captain and Mrs. Schumacher who have been invited since they are said to carry a tame sort of spook about with them. I looked at them hard, but they didn’t seem to have it concealed about their persons.
These interesting descriptions are courtesy Everard Blatchington who is also one among the invitees and writes long letters to his wife regarding his fellow guests and their nefarious activities. The letters add to the charm of the novel because the Coles have not written the book in the usual style – employing a straight-forward narrative but have rather allowed a multiplicity of view-points. The plot moves forward from letters, newspaper reports, telephonic conversations, telegrams, interviews etc. The challenge is to present things as they appear -in a strict chronological order- and let the readers solve the case before the detective (Superintendent Wilson of the New Scotland Yard) does so.
To go back to the story, a seance is held and Mrs. Schumacher’s poltergeist plays havoc. The same night a thief enters the Manor and takes away a number of valuable jewels and ornaments, among them the prized Pallant Emeralds which was presented to Charles II by an official of the East India Company, though history, perhaps wisely, does not say whence he obtained it. It consists of a triple row of the rarest square-cut emeralds, set in a filagree silver and platinum setting of the finest old Hindu work, and the clasp is of pearls and diamonds, the latter themselves of no mean value….
From then on it is a veritable merry-go-round.,,,
As always I looked for historical pointers to the period and found a number of references to the empire as Captain Schumacher was in army service in India. Mrs. Schumacher was apparently given this ability to conjure up a poltergeist by an old woman in Agra. The couple moved from Calcutta and Bombay in India to Cairo and Damascus. There is also a news broadcast about floods in Baluchistan.
Incidentally, the image of the burglar on the jacket of the book reminded me strongly of a similar kind of costume (dark glasses, cap) worn by Indian actor Manoj Kumar in his flick, Dus Numbari. Have a look:
If Burglars in Bucks is delightful, the couple’s other book The Affair at Aliquid is also a pleasure to read. Perhaps it was hugely popular too because the printing history shows it going for a second impression in the same month of its first printing: September, 1933.
The Duke of Aliquid is a gentle soul ready to help everybody. Thus when he receives a letter from David Rogers detailing the objective of his People’s Picture Agency – to equip the schools and colleges of great Britain with pictures, maps, charts, and other educational appliances – and asking for the Duke’s help in endorsing these products, the Duke is more than willing. Also David Rogers is no ordinary soul, he is the missionary who carried the light of enlightenment to all those benighted souls in dark Africa. The Duke not only promises to help but also invites the Reverend to his estate at Aliquid.
Only the duke – poor fellow- got a little confused because this David Rogers just shares his name with the great missionary. What follows is a mad-cap of a novel in which Rogers arrives at the castle only to find that he has to play the role of a clergyman. His foray into things religious begins with a crime as he steals the clothes of the local parson. Needless to add, there is very soon a burglary in the Duke’s house and David has to keep his wits about him to get out of the jam. Things do not improve with the arrival of his female companion Dorothy who by no stretch of imagination looks like the wife of a missionary. She is also one of those lucky mortals whose mouths do not come wide open when they go to sleep in the train.
Throw in the mix, scenes like a parson accusing another clergyman of having stolen his trousers:
“Give me back my trousers,” he said. “I want my trousers.”
Mr. Summerhaye’s tones were so loud and so menacing that the rest of the house party could not possibly help taking notice of the incident….
“What’s all this about trousers?” said a middle-aged man of military appearance “I knew a man once who had a pair of check trousers so loud that the flies used to play chess on them. Ha, ha.”
He realised that his little joke had fallen flat and stared in perplexity from face to face. The Duke came up. He had been at the other end of the room and had not noticed what had been going on.
“Ah, Summerhaye,” he said. “I do hope you and Rogers have been having an interesting talk. You have so much in common.”
“Including trousers apparently,” said a high female voice, ending the sentence with a screech of merriment. there was a general titter.
Or gaffes at the dinner, like this:
But Miss Perks was not destined to explain at that moment about the ghosts she saw, for her next door neighbour on the farther side – a large red-faced man who had hitherto been too much occupied with eating to join in the conversation – was at this point roused to activity, and had a big blusterous voice which effectively drowned Miss Perk’s.
“Molly,” he bawled across her to the Duchess, under the apparent belief that he was speaking in a whisper, “who the devil’s that woman on Humphrey’s left?”
“My dear Percy,” said the Duchess in a carefully lowered tone, “that is Lady Snodgrass. You’ve met her before.”
“Oh, the Snodgrass. She’s looking a lot older,” Percy bawled, “and even uglier than she used to.”
His first remark by its loudness had produced one of those sudden general silences in the midst of which you can hear a pin drop, and into this silence his last remark fell with a sickening thud. (60)
Or younger sons who appear in public in scarlet silk pyjamas:
“My dear Pat, why should I bother to dress?…You know I can never sleep a wink in these beastly trains, and I mean to go to bed again as soon as I get home. I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t drive out in pyjamas if I prefer. The local johnies go about in kilts, so why not pyjamas for a change… (117)
Or bishops who are very affectionate towards young ladies:
The Bishop patted her softly on the shoulder, then he took her little hand in his large flabby paw.
“Now, my dear,” he said, “there’s no need to be offended with me. What I meant was you didn’t seem just the sort of person one expects to be the wife of a missionary.”
“Wife of a missionary!” Dorothy began, with every intention of indignantly repudiating the suggestion. But just in time there came over her the vision of David in clerical dress. Good Lord, she wondered, whatever had David been up to now. She stopped the denial on the tip of her tongue.
“I’m sure I don’t see why not,” she said. “One has to be all things to all men, hasn’t one? – especially bishops. If you’re very nice and behave yourself perhaps I’ll talk to you again some time, but now if you aren’t good, so you’d better be careful. And now let go of my hand. There’s somebody coming.”
The Bishop let go just as Mrs. Patricroft, the house-keeper, appeared on the scene. He retreated into his room in some disorder, under her shark-like eyes.
What was a little surprising for me in the book was – I won’t say promiscuity – but a certain open-mindedness about having affairs and flings. The young people in the book have no qualms about talking about or entering into a physical relationship just like that. I had no idea that British society in the 1930s was so accepting about these matters.
However, what startled me was a sentence somewhere near the end of the book when a small boy suddenly uses an abusive term for an elderly lady: The coasts’s clear. I’ve got the old bitch out of the way.
This was startling because it was totally against the general mood of the book. Suddenly the boy turned from a mischievous imp to somebody who needed to have his mouth washed with soap. It certainly left a bad taste in my mouth.
Just wondering: the Coles wrote about labour and the working class and yet in these two books they depict the ( rather frivolous upper class, with almost a Wodehousian flavour. Letting off steam? Whatever the reason, read them if you get a chance. I am looking forward to reading more of them.
First Line: Dear Sir, – I am writing you this letter because I understand your Society is interested in all questions about the occult and ready to investigate them: but I ought to say, before I begin, that it is a purely personal letter.
Title: Burglars in Bucks
Alternate Title: The Berkshire Mystery
Authors: G.D.H Cole and Margaret Cole
Publication Details: London: Collins, 1930
First Published: 1930
Opening Lines: The Duke of Aliquid’s hobby in life was philanthropy. He was an ardent supporter of almost every cause devoted to the relief of suffering or to the uplift of the human race. His big sprawling signature was familiar to all those who are accustomed to receive begging letters, and most of them had learnt long ago to throw straight into the waste-paper basket all appeals which bore his name.
Title: The Affair at Aliquid
Authors: G.D.H and Margaret Cole
Publication Details: London: Collins, 1933. [The Crime Club]
First Published: 1933
The books might be available at second-hand book stores or libraries. I borrowed them from HM Library at Fountain.
Submitted for the following challenges: 52 Books in 52 Weeks, 2013 Genre Variety, 2013 Mystery/ Crime, British Books, Criminal Plots III, Let Me Count the Ways, Library Books, New Authors, Vintage Mystery
Entry for Friday’s Forgotten Books.