G.D.H. and M. Cole were prolific if less than dazzling writers of the Golden Age and my choice for today’s Forgotten Book is one of their ‘inverted’ novels, End of an Ancient Mariner, which first came out in 1933.
Philip Blakeaway has married well, and lives a comfortable life, but it comes under threat at the start of the book. The elderly seafarer of the title comes across him, and recognises him from the past. We do not know what Philip’s secret is, but soon the old man is dead – shot, according to Philip, while attempt to burgle his house overlooking Hampstead Heath.
At first, it seems, Philip’s story will be accepted. The police seem satisfied. But Philip is at risk, because his butler smells a rat, and the dead man’s daughter – who is unaware of his fate – starts trying to track down her father. Thanks to one or two rather unlikely coincidences, Philip comes under increasing pressure, and then Superintendent Wilson, the Coles’ regular cop, finally comes on the scene...
There are one or two nice touches of satire – ‘the BBC cherishes an ineradicable hope that if it persistently addresses the public in good English with a cultured accent, by and by it will be as if the entire population of Great Britain had been educated at Winchester, and what nobler ideal can democracy set itself than that?’ Politics gets a passing mention when Philip denies being a Socialist (‘I’m far too fond of my own comfort’) despite being on good terms with his chauffeur. But these little touches are few and far between – a pity, for the Coles could have written a more memorable story if they had let their hair down a bit more.
As it is, the book is certainly readable, and it held my interest throughout, while there is a pleasing touch of ambiguity about the ending. This is the best of the few Coles novels that I have read so far.