The Coles, Margaret and her husband Douglas, were activists and intellectuals who wrote on weighty subjects but also wrote some 30+ mysteries. Over the years since I first read them, I have read a few more of their books but have been amiss in reviewing them. This week, however, I finished two more of their mysteries and thought I should really get down to posting about them.
Death of a Star
“Law is different for poor men, you know, sir.”
Constable Wedderburn is making his nightly round near the river bank when the silence of the night is broken by the sound of revelry. Soon he espies the sculptor Patrick Sayle and his wife Carlo taking a night walk. It seems the Sayles are having a party at their home and had stepped out for some night air. When they opened the door of their home, the gramophone’s music blasted the silence of the night and Wedderburn’s reverie. As the Sayles exchange pleasantries with the constable, a taxi draws near them. The driver who has lost his way asks for directions to reach Broadway. He is told the direction to take but he doesn’t leave immediately instead asking the constable to have a look at a bag that his last passenger had mistakenly left behind. Meanwhile, rambunctious guests of Sayle come running outside and despite the protests yank open the bag and then there are screams of horror as a head rolls out. “Rita Morning”, gasps the taxi driver, Edward Dougal, recognising the film star whose fan he has had been. More police force arrives but before the taxi driver is taken away for further questioning, he appeals to Patrick Sayle to help him as the police might try to frame him for the murder.
When Sayle narrates this to his friends at the party, (Coles’ amateur sleuth) Everard Blatchington agrees to help him in order to see justice is done. But who would want to kill the beautiful celluloid star?
Usually British golden-age mysteries show the police, whether local or belonging to Scotland Yard, as paragons of virtue who are impartial in their dealings during the investigation of the case. The policemen in this book, however, are a pretty unlikeable lot and their dealings with the suspects in the case reflect the difference in their attitude when dealing with members of different classes. The novel also shows the rather bleak status of England’s poor after the first world war with demobbed soldiers having nowhere to go and even turning to crime as there are no jobs in sight.
“Ranker, of course,” he said; and added bitterly, “they don’t want us now, specially not rankers. Got too big for our boots, we did – better be put in our places, and told not to bother a grateful country.”
While this book was interesting as a picture of the socio-economic realities of England post-WWI, I wasn’t too happy either with the mystery or the characters. Nor was there any humour in it. Even Blatchington who was hilariously funny in my first acquaintance with him is hardly more than a boring bystander in this. So, all in all, just an okay read.
First Line: Police-Constable Wedderburn loved the river.
Publishing Details: 1932. London: Collins (The Crime Club), 1932.
Other Opinions: The Passing Tramp
Dr. Tancred Begins
The second book, Dr. Tancred Begins, (as the title indicates) is the first book of another character who perhaps the Coles thought would become their series character after Everard Blatchington and Superintendent Wilson. After reading the book and searching on the Net, I found that the second book in the series is Last Will and Testament which appeared around one and a half years after this book. Have no idea whether there are other books in this series or not and frankly I don’t think Dr. Tancred is anything special to have a series dedicated to him. The only thing that stood out for me was his habit of shrugging his shoulders and that also because an earlier reader had pointed out, in the margins of the book, how Tancred’s big shoulders on page 94 turned into narrow shoulders just nine pages later!
Anyway, the book is narrated by Tancred’s Watson, Paul Graham, who convalescing in a small village gets drawn into the affairs of the Pendexter family mostly because he falls head-over-heels in love with Helen Pendexter, the daughter of the family. When Helen is arrested later on the suspicion of having murdered her step-father, Simon, Paul sends an s-o-s to Ben Trancred. Only Helen is not happy at these attempts to save her. What is she afraid of?
While the case of Simon’s death is solved rather unsatisfactorily in this, the saga continues in the second book in which the criminal ostensibly gets his/her comeuppance. In this book, Paul is recounting the murder that happened 25 years ago (Superintendent Wilson is merely a lowly Seargant at this point of time):
They are all gone. It makes me feel old to write it; and all the same I am still under fifty, and Benjamin Tancred is not much older than I am. But when a man gets to writing about things that happened twenty-five years ago, I don’t see how he can help feeling old.
I enjoyed the book in the beginning but the book’s repetitive procedure began to get irksome after a point and if the murderer is really the person as indicated by the end of the book, where is the mystery? In fact, more than what happened in the pages, I was more intrigued by the fact that a book copyrighted in 1935 (and carrying an author’s note of the same year) could carry the library stamp of 20 May 1934.
First Line: When it was first suggested to me that I should take on the writing of this book, I said I couldn’t possibly do it; and even now, when I have got to the length of having a signed contract with a publisher and accumulating a great mass of notes, I am not at all sure that I shall manage to write it.
Publication Details: 1935. London: Collins (The Crime Club), 1935.
Other Opinions: The Grandest Game in the World
Have you read these or other books by the Coles? Do you enjoy their mysteries?