#839: The Death of a Millionaire (1925) by G.D.H. and Margaret Cole

Death of a Millionaire

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Here’s an oddity to begin with: the cover of my Penguin edition of The Death of a Millionaire (1925) by G.D.H. and Margaret Cole — a scan of the actual copy I read shown left — omits the opening article, but the title pages and all the internal pages include it. This may be deliberate, since it’s about the only mystery connected with this title that will confound any readers, the central scheme being frankly transparent to the modern eye — even if it may have caused sensation in 1925. However, the book as a whole is so very enjoyable, occasional facetiousness aside, that I can’t really hold this against it.

We are early in the Golden Age — Agatha Christie has written only two novels of genuine detection, Dorothy L. Sayers just one — and it’s important to remember that in order to get the most out of this story of a murder scene with no corpse. The approach taken by the Coles is painstaking, methodical, over-burdened with caution, and oddly haphazard at times, but the narrative retains a compulsive air of mystery-making that is still hugely enjoyable. To see the ingredients still being juggled much as Freeman Wills Crofts would play with nascent tropes in The Cask (1920) and The Groote Park Murder (1923) is always a little thrilling for those of us who fixate on the early days of GAD. It wouldn’t exactly be true to say that you’re missing out by not reading this, but it’s a hugely enjoyable time about which I refuse to feel even a little guilty for liking as much as I do.

Grit your teeth through the opening introduction to Sugden’s, “the best hotel in London”, because it does eventually pay dividends: the millionaire Hugh Restington is a guest there and has left instructions that he not be disturbed before 9:30, and yet an equally impressive and powerful man arrives insisting he has a breakfast appointment with the magnate for 9:00. Much wringing of hands ensues, with the eventual discovery of bloody sheets and disarranged furniture in Mr. Restington’s room and the news that Mr. Restington’s secretary had checked out that morning and taken with him a very large, and suspiciously heavy, travelling trunk. That this gruesome discovery is played out not unlike a comedy of manners is one of the odder narrative decisions the Coles make, but certainly far from the last. However, the problem is a good one. A crime is committed, the perpetrator obvious, and it now remains simply to track the man down.

At this juncture, things take a decidedly Henry Wade-ish turn with the arrival of Inspector Blaikie:

[He] was a skilled searcher. He seldom missed a clue, though often enough he failed to realise its significance. He was strong on fact, weak on inference… The Inspector had higher ambitions; but if her ever made good, it would be on the basis of his plodding capacity for detailed observation.

Blaikie, overseen by Lord Ealing whose breakfast appointment has turned into a murder investigation, carries out a thorough examination of the scene, makes a discovery or two about both the tenant of the rooms and the content of them following said tenant’s departure, and then the two gentlemen depart the scene to appraise Superintendent Wilson of the situation. To say more about the precise direction the plot takes would risk spoilers, partly on account of the transparency of what unfolds — despite, it must be said, some good attempts to drag additional disclosures across the trail — and partly because of the gentle amble at which things move.

That ambling pace is the one aspect of the book I can raise genuine issue with, because, lordy, don’t things ever take a long time to happen. Each chapter is headed by a pithy sentence giving a summary of what is about to unfold, and chapter 9 — “In which a cultivated young man is given an agreeable task” — takes four pages to say ‘Meet Arthur, who will be dragged in because he’s related to one of the involved parties’. Indeed, it was at about this point that I began to suspect (correctly, as it happens) that the deduction I had reached was not going to be another of the well-timed surprises doled out along the way, but was due instead to be the terminal surprise of the whole endeavour. 200 pages later, after some picturesque gallivanting, I was right. I should have been furious, but the whole enterprise, once you allow the gentle lapping of its waves against the bow of your rudderless boat to lull you into an accepting and peaceful frame of mind, is so gosh-darned charming that I would have very happily read another 200 pages before finding out.

I’ll be honest: this reaction confuses me. I am a fiend for a propulsive plot, and have tossed aside many a book with more going on than this, but…I dunno, somehow this one really got to me. Maybe it’s the gentle intelligence with which Blaikie and Wilson work together, or the casual way the economist in George Cole throws in business concerns in a way that is both effortless and brilliantly complex, or the historical context about the post-revolutionary Soviet government and its non-ratification by certain Western powers, or the novelty of finding something from 1925 that isn’t casually pillorying the Jewish people (“I remember he said the Russians were the most intelligent people on earth except the Jews — and his secretary had the advantage of being both”). For all its familiarity with some of the new ideas in detective fiction, something about this just felt fresh and invigorating, like dousing yourself with cold water — you know what’s coming, but it’s also going to do you good to see it through.

I think my recently-discovered appreciation of the works of R. Austin Freeman, and my increasing interest in the opening volley of works that resulted in the Golden Age (c.f. Baroness Orczy, Arthur Morrison, Arthur B. Reeve, William Hope Hodgson, etc.) saw this less a weakened form of GAD than a triumph realisation of what had preceded it. It’s a finely-balanced narrative full of superb ideas, genuine humour, rich thumb portrait characters, solid detection, and oddly compelling blandness that feels as if it is knocking at the door of the complexity that Anthony Berkeley and his ilk were about to master and unleash upon the world. The Coles don’t, on this evidence, strike me as a central pole in the GAD tent, but they’re certainly a guy-rope without which the canvas would look decidedly less impressive — a reprint of their work to provide more investigation must surely be on the cards somewhere.

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See also

Nick @ The Grandest Game in the World: The Coles’ satire is at its best, as they show the effects of the murder on the financial market, and, by extension, on all walks of life—one is inescapably reminded of Dickens, particularly Martin Chuzzlewit or Our Mutual Friend. Politics, big business and social mores are all examined with a witty and ironic eye, and the humour is spot-on… The book moves slowly, but of necessity, for there is a great deal going on, a great variety in place and mood (London, Normandy and the steppes of Siberia all feature prominently), yet the whole feels remarkably tight and coherent. There can be no doubt that this is the work of two highly intelligent minds, and that the book is to be savoured, read slowly and carefully, as befits any work of GENIUS.

Bev @ My Reader’s Block: On the one hand I learned way more than I ever wanted to know about how minor or major events can affect the fickle ways of share prices. We get heaping helpings of the Coles’ views on politics, big business, and the social strata of the 1920s. And it took longer to get to the good parts of the mystery than I would have liked. On the other hand, there are some laugh out loud moments–the bit about the fleet of specially-hired airplanes heading to France each following the other, for instance…

26 thoughts on “#839: The Death of a Millionaire (1925) by G.D.H. and Margaret Cole

  1. I’m delighted you enjoyed Millionaire; I was on tenterhooks to find out what you’d make of it. I agree the deception is transparent – which could frustrate an ultra-plot-oriented reader – but this is one of my favourite books from the early Golden Age (as you might have guessed). And how many detective stories have flashbacks to Soviet Russia?

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      • This is how I feel about practically everything Ben tracks down at The Green Capsule — not jealous that he read something, but that he acquired such a wonderful physical copy for such a pittance.

        This, of course, is where Ben crops up and tells us about the complete collection of the Coles he found at a car boot sale for $3.22 this weekend…

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    • I could see me not going for this at all, and am glad I’d read a couple of their short stories to soften me up. Were it my first time at the Coleface, I might have been less enthusiastic. But, yeah, this worked for me despite all indicators that it shouldn’t — as I say, I have a feeling that’s on account of my growing appreciation of pre-GAD writers and their work.

      Thanks for the steer towards it, now I just have to wait around for 6 years to find another one of their books in general circulation 🙂

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      • Early GAD, not pre-GAD!

        1920 is generally reckoned the start of the Golden Age – first book appearance of Reggie Fortune, Poirot, and Crofts. G.D.H. Cole’s first book, The Brooklyn Murders, appeared in 1923.

        You’re in Britain; have you thought of inter-library loan? You might enjoy The Man from the River, Dead Man’s Watch, The Great Southern Mystery…

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        • My one experience of inter-library loan was inspired by GAD: Barbican library — who have a huge collection of classic and hard-to-find GAD titles — were at a Bodies from the Library conference a few years ago, extolling the virtues of the inter-library loan system for GAD fans. Thus, when trying to find one particular title, I went along to my local library, told them about Barbican, filled out the form, paid the fee, waited five weeks…and was told that, yes, barbican have it, but they don’t lend that sort of thing out.

          I’ve been somewhat suspicious of the ILL system ever since 🙂

          Are for pre vs. early, I was referring more to Orczy, early Freeman, etc., who were writing pre-GAD. I consider this book more favourably because I see it as the peak of that school rather than judging it against the 1930s output it no doubt helped inspire.

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    • Ah, thanks, Bev — your review didn’t crop up when I searched, and it’d be good to have a contrary approach. I’ll quote you above and add a link, that the range of responses may be better represented.

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      • Thanks, JJ! I do seem to get buried in the search engines (if they recognize me at all…).

        I’ve got Superintendent Wilson’s Holiday on the TBR pile–that one’s a collection of short stories. Maybe the short form will work a little better for me.

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        • The three or four short stories of theirs that have cropped up in various places recently are what got me interested in their novels, so maybe that is a good way to go.

          I shall continue to keep an eye out for more; thankfully, there’s plenty to read in the meantime 🙂

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      • Symons undoubtedly had a staggering coverage of the genre, and there’s a lot to remember — so I’m willing to forgive him this oversight.

        Though given how much general grumbling there is in GAD about taxes, the welfare state, and the gosh-darned government allowing all the spivs to get jobs and so make it terribly difficult to find and hold onto good household staff — plus the influx of “forriners” into those roles in a lot of late-1940s titles (c.f., Blue Murder, A Murder is Announced, etc) — for the politically-inspired Coles to have never written about politics would be amazingly notable, wouldn’t it?

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  2. Hmmm. Got this on my shelf – the only Green Penguin Coles title, I think. I had roughly the same reaction to Death In The Quarry – enjoyed the writing, not really the plot – so maybe I’ll give it a go, although a slow plot is worse for me than an obvious plot, so maybe I won’t…

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  3. I wrote about this one extensively both in The Spectrum of English Murder and in Murder in the Closet, in the latter case because of the one-sided gay love story. It’s *Douglas* Cole, by the way, just like it’s *John* Street.

    The reprint situation is frustrating because the person concerned thinks the rights were assigned, but they just don’t remember to whom!

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    • Of course, thank-you, Curt; it is “Douglas” — an oversight I should not have made, given how much I’ve read about the Coles…

      And thanks, too, for the clarity on the reprint situation. Most vexing!

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