Thursday 4 June 2009

Big Business Murder

Thanks to an excellent second hand book dealer, Mark Sutcliffe of Ilkley, I’ve just acquired a copy of an obscure Golden Age detective novel, Big Business Murder, by the husband and wife team of G.D.H. and Margaret Cole.

It will be interesting to see what the book is like, and whether it reflects, in an entertaining and instructive way, the Coles’ political leanings. Few Golden Age books show much meaningful engagement with the political issues of the period, and the Coles’ many books were – as a rule – no exception to this. But unlike many of their contemporaries, the couple were prominent socialists, and G.D.H, a leading figure in the Fabian Society, was a prolific writer of political books.

His early work included Some Essentials of Socialist Propaganda (1932) and What is Socialism? (1933). He compiled A History of Socialist Thought (1953-60) and managed to spin it out to five volumes, no less. I detect a note of weariness creeping in over the years, though. In 1919, he wrote Workers’ Control in Industry, but 35 years later, he penned What is Wrong with Trade Unions?

I’m not sure what, if they were alive today, the Coles would have made of the current travails of our politicians. Perhaps, again, they would have been driven to crime.


Dorte H said...

It will be interesting to hear what you think about it. The very famous Swedes, Sjöwall and Wahlöö were socialists, had a rather pessimistic view on their society and police, and this certainly reflects on the tone and content of their novels. Masterpieces, certainly, but they may be regarded as Scandinavian doom and gloom :D

Martin Edwards said...

I've read several of their Martin Beck books, but not all ten, as yet. I was very impressed that they managed a fresh take on the 'locked room' concept!

vegetableduck said...

Martin, political commentary shows up in the Coles books more than people seem to think! This is addressed in my manuscript. Certainly Big Business Murder offers a sour take on business, but a better book (and a very satirical one) is the earlier tale The Death of a Millionaire.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Curt. Which are the best Coles in your opinion?

nlfuller said...

Big Business Murder is disappointing - it starts well, but the ending's flat. At their best, though, the Coles are excellent - witty, well characterised, and thoroughly entertaining, and certainly on a par with early Christie.

Best ones:
The Brooklyn Murders
The Death of a Millionaire - masterpiece
The Murder at Crome House
The Man from the River
Superintendent Wilson's Holiday - has the splendid "In a Telephone Cabinet"
Dead Man's Watch

The Great Southern Mystery, Death in the Quarry, Scandal at School, Double Blackmail, The Brothers Sackville, Counterpoint Murder, and Knife in the Dark, none of which I've read, were all well received at the time.

The Pendexter saga (Dr. Tancred Begins and Last Will and Testament) and Greek Tragedy are also weak.

vegetableduck said...

Martin, opinion was that their earlier books were better, but part of that may simply be a reflection of changing tastes (their style was more in tune with elite opinion in the 1920s). My favorite books by them include some later titles, like The Brothers Sackville, Disgrace to the College, Double Blackmail, Counterpoint Murder, Death of a Bride (two of these are novellas). Among earlier titles I like The Blatchington Tangle and Burglars in Bucks (both very light). Poison in the Garden Suburb, The Murder at Crome House, The Death of a Millionaire, Dead Man's Watch and Death at the Quarry get some praise too.

I contend they are better seen as academic farceurs than humdrums and I put them more in the Innes school (just not nearly as imginative). They frequently fire social/political satirical squibs in their books, but usually in a lightly humorous way. I believe Symons originally wrote that they never treated political themes in their works, then revised that claim to never treated them SERIOUSLY. That latter contention is more accurate, in that I think it implicitly concedes that there is political material there.

The Death of a Millionaire is a striking work in some ways. It opens with this great Trollopeian flourish and in overall tone rather reminds me of ABC's Trial and Error (though I much prefer the latter book) in its satirically humorous view of society.

I've got 88 pages on them in the manuscript and will be footnoting that section this month.

Martin Edwards said...

Nick and Curt - many thanks, plenty to go at there. I have Supt. Wilson's Holiday, but haven't read it.

vegetableduck said...

I think "In a Telephone Cabinet," from Holiday, is a deservedly classic status short story. It has a very wicked Rhodeian gadget in there! Some of the other stories in the collection have interest for left/liberal social commentary, for the student of social history.