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.
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…