Friday, 21 November 2014

Forgotten Book - Death of a Millionaire

Death of a Millionaire, by G.D.H. and Margaret Cole, was published almost ninety years ago, and is my Forgotten Book for today. Its appearance followed Douglas Cole's solo detective novel, which introduced Superintendent Henry Wilson, and it marked the beginning of a literary partnership that lasted for more than fifteen years between Douglas and his wife Margaret. They carved a niche for themselves in crime fiction history, and although their work has often been condemned for dullness, it is noteworthy that this particular book became a green Penguin paperback a quarter of a century after its first appearance, no mean feat. This may, in part, have been due to the authors' fame as socialist thinkers, but the book also received some laudatory reviews.

It begins promisingly, with satiric description of posh Sugden's Hotel and high ranking politician Lord Ealing. He has some form of business connection with a mysterious millionaire called Hugh Radlett, who has checked into the hotel, but Radlett, and his equally mysterious secretary go missing, and all the evidence suggests that the secretary has killed his employer, and taken the body away in a trunk. But why?

The book also ends rather well, with a neat plot twist, and further helpings of anti-establishment satire. On the final page, one character says, "Law and order and rights of property...are all bunkum", and Wilson is so disgusted by what happens after he solves the puzzle that he leaves Scotland Yard and sets up as a private detective. (This didn't last long; he soon returned to the fold.) Judged by the standards of the mid-1920s, all this was rather daring and unusual, and it's best to judge books by reference to the time when they were written, and what the author(s) was trying to do..

It's significant that this book was written a year before the General Strike. The Coles describe a dysfunctional society seemingly beyond repair. During the novel, a manuscript written by Radlett tells the story of how his father was a trade union activist who suffered through his beliefs, and post-Revolution Russia is presented with more sympathy than you might expect in a detective novel of this period.

So there are pleasing elements to be found in this novel, especially for those interested in social history. Unfortunately, I found I had to struggle through some very tedious story-telling in order to unearth the good bits. I'm afraid that I was bored for some of the time, because to achieve that cunning plot twist, the Coles needed to construct a very elaborate sequence of events, which they proceeded to recount in a very long-winded fashion  The style is sometimes arch, sometimes clumsy. As so often in their books, the cleverness of the basic idea simply was not matched by the way it was put to work. But one has to remember that neither of the authors was an experienced detective novelist when they wrote this  They later proved they were capable of doing better, although like many of their contemporaries, if they had written half as many books, and lavished twice as much care over them, the results would have been more artistically satisfying..



Philip Amos said...

May I say, Martin, that this seems to me one of your finest reviews of a book by Golden Age and/or forgetten authors. I think this because it is full of suggestive ideas.

On a purely personal note -- well, most of this comment is so -- I chuckled at 'Lord Ealing', for I originated in Isleworth and for some utterly inexplicable reason I've always had an intense dislike of any mention of Ealing! Peculiar.

On a more serious theme, I must applaud your statement re judging books by reference to the time when they were written and what the author was trying to do. This vital key to understanding and experiencing times past vicariously has been almost lost because of the failure to teach History as a discipline(!!!) and a distinct way of looking at the past and so at the world.

The mania of some people, notably in the US, for either banning novels of the past for being non-PC, and also for re-writing classic works of literature, a current fad, are signs of what we have come to. I thank you for that one sentence, though not for that alone.

You also advert to something that has long baffled me. The Coles were Fabians, and one versed in History knows the significance of that word, and Douglas Cole's works are just basically Fabian in nature, though far from dogmatically and in the authoritarian manner of the founders, especially the Webbs et al., much influenced by Nietzsche. I found his works decidedly gradualist and original in thought -- much has relevance at this time.

And yet, these 'Fabians' did express admiration for the Soviet Union. Indeed, the dogmatic defence of the SU by Shaw during Stalin's 1930s show trials and general reign of terror quite stunned me in reading his letters. Odyssey of a Liberal, the memoirs of an Anglo-American journalist, is a vital source re the Fabians, and reveals Shaw in his letters when she tried to gather his support in an effort to get her Russian husband out of a Stalinist prison as nigh on soulless. Russell was so furious with him that he ended their relations.

Heaven help me, I worked with a Fabian historian of the Balkans of some renown, a woman, and I do not joke when I say that her writings on Tito, especially her very cherry-picking biography of him published by Penguin, made me wonder, as she knew him personally, if she was not in some sense in love with him! Certainly there was a huge presence of hero-worship.

In short, it raises the question of just what the hell the Fabians were about -- gradualists, anti-revolutionary, anti-dictatorship and authoritianism who nevertheless promoted the development of empires and praised regimes that were exemplars of all that to which they were opposed, in theory.

I rather admire certain of Cole's political analyses and proposed solutions, but this odd disjunct must indeed be seen in the context of the time, but especially what they were trying to do, as you say, and in the case of the Fabians, they present in themselves a mystery. May I suggest that, while there is much social history in this, it is much more a matter of political history. The crime novels are a valuable historical source.

Martin Edwards said...

I appreciate your remarks, Philip. I touch on some of these issues - although not in great depth, for a variety of reasons - in THE GOLDEN AGE OF MRUDER.