Friday, 18 January 2013

Forgotten Book: Burglars in Bucks

The co-authors of today's Forgotten Book are those great political campaigners of the Golden Age, G.D.H. and Margaret Cole. I've been reading up about their life together and what strikes me above all is their unquenchable spirit. Time and again their crusades fell apart, yet each time they dusted themselves down, picked themselves up and started all over again. Rather like their number one sleuth, Superintendent Wilson, who resigned from the police force and became a private inquiry agent, only to resume his official career a few cases later.

I've not read any of the stories in which Wilson was not a policeman. In today's story, Burglars in Bucks, he is back in the police, but is rather on the edge of things, as here the Coles were experimenting. This is one of those stories told by gathering together bits and pieces of evidence - letters, press cuttings, telegrams, police reports and so on. It's a terrific concept, and I'd be glad to hear from readers of any similar Golden Age books they can recommend (other than, say, the Dennis Wheatley crime dossiers, which are not novels but, really, games.) The multiple viewpoint crime story has a hallowed tradition - think of Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone, or Dorothy L. Sayers and Robert Eustace's under-rated and noteworthy The Documents in the Case, published, like the Coles' book, in 1930.

One of the snags with this book is that there is no murder, just a burglary. And the reality  is that if you are going to write a full-length novel about a much lesser crime than murder, you have to write a truly gripping story. This is a book that is highly rated by a number of judges whose opinions I greatly respect, and I was looking forward very much to reading it. But I must say that it disappointed me. Which only goes to show how subjective an experience reading is.

Intriguingly, there is a seance scene, although it is less effective than the table-turning scene in a superior book published the following year, Christie's The Sittaford Mystery. I am sure there was no question of plagiarism. Probably the ideas common to the books of Christie, Sayers and the Coles were just "in the air" at the time - it often happens, and always will. Possibly conversations over dinner at the Detection Club played a part. Certainly, Christie and Sayers executed the ideas better than the Coles did.

And I was driven almost to scream by the laborious way information about the characters was dragged in, notably in the letters between one suspect and his wife. So we get lots of lines like "You surely can't have forgotten about the Pallants so soon...Don't you remember when the old grandfather died, in 1920, wasn't it?...what you've clearly forgotten is that the villain of the piece was the same Sir Hiram Watkins you're asking about..you'd better have the whole story for reference..." And so it goes on. Such clumsy writing defeats the whole purpose of the very interesting experiment that the book might have been. The Coles were very busy people and they often rushed their writing. Margaret Cole admitted this frankly in later life. They were, though, capable of better than this, and thankfully they bounced back yet again with stories like End of an Ancient Mariner..

Weirdly, for a story set, as the title suggests, near Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire, the US edition was called The Berkshire Mystery.How can we explain this? Did the American publishers fall asleep before they read much of it? It wouldn't come as complete surprise...

3 comments:

John said...

I liked it and found little to criticize. Probably because it was frothy and I had been indulging in noir and darker crime novels without an ounce of humor in them. The humor was what won me over. I also like a detective novel that dares to exclude the requisite murder. Carr did this a couple of times in his books. I thought Blatchington was the best part of the BURGLARS IN BUCKS which I reviewed much more favorably at my blog a few months ago. Different strokes...

Martin Edwards said...

Quite, John. It would be a grey old world if we all reacted the same way to every book. And I guess the same goes for the Father Brown series, which has elicited very varied opinions.

Ron Smyth said...

I would like to read something by the Coles but have never found one. Sounds like they would be right up my alley.