Friday 22 August 2014

Forgotten Book - Last Will and Testament

Today's Forgotten Book dates from 1936, but it has not been entirely neglected since its original publication. Last Will and Testament, by G.D.H. and Margaret Cole was exhumed from the vaults by Collins Crime Club in 1985, and that edition is my copy. It benefits from an excellent intro by Harry Keating, displaying his characteristic blend of kindliness and insight. Any crime critic looking to model himself or herself on a distinguished figure from the past would do well to look at how Harry did it. He was rarely harsh, but he never pretended that mundane books were brilliant either. A touch of graciousness is a very Good Thing in a critic or commentator, and Harry was naturally gracious. And his style was invariable agreeable and informative.

This book is evidently the follow-up to an earlier Coles effort, which I have not read, Dr Tancred Begins.(After reading this book, I recalled that Malcolm J. Turnbull, another excellent critic and an expert on Anthony Berkeley, wrote an interesting article about both stories in CADS a few issues ago.) They go to some pains to make clear that it is not necessary to have read the earlier book to enjoy this one, but it forms a companion piece. We are given to understand that the action of the first book took place 25 years earlier, and the gifted private detective was unable to pin guilt of murder on the presumed culprit. But now murder occurs again in the same family, and the original culprit is back in the frame.

I thought this was an exceptionally interesting premise for a book, and indeed for a pair of books. Dr Ben Tancred is, as Harry rightly says, a more engaging detective than Superintendent Wilson, whom the Coles usually favoured, and who does have a bit part to play in the two Tancred stories. Tancred also has his own "Watson", though I must say I struggled to understand why the Coles bothered to have a story narrated by someone who is not present during almost all of the action.

This story boasts various classic elements, including a country house and a seemingly unbreakable alibi. The alibi proved, however, to be all too easily shattered, and this was just one of the elements of the criminal's design that perplexed me. Another oddity was that two highly intelligent authors created a character who has been mauled by a tiger in...Africa. The story does have some charm, but on the whole, its weaknesses overwhelm it, and that clever premise is largely wasted.. I'm afraid that Harry showed greater skill at writing a positive introduction to the reissue than the Coles did at creating a fascinating mystery. They could do better than this. Despite Malcolm J. Turnbull's able advocacy, I doubt that I will bother with Dr Tancred Begins


Unknown said...

Obviously, some books deserve to be forgotten. Thank you for taking the time to "warn" me and others that this one can be relegated to history.

BTW, don't you just hate it when you have "wasted you time" with inferior books? Or -- as a writer -- do you relish the object-lessons available in such books?

As a teacher of literature, I find myself reading most often with an eye to understanding the writer's technique. Perhaps you bring a similar critical eye to inferior books.

BVLawson said...

Yes, I've always been a fan of that great African wildcat, the tiger. ;-) FYI, Martin, I'm hosting FFB links for Patti today. Here's the permalink: