Raymond Postgate (1896 – 1971)


Postgate-3Raymond William Postgate (6 November 1896 – 29 March 1971) was a British socialist journalist and editor, social historian, mystery novelist and gourmet. Born in Cambridge, the eldest son of John Percival Postgate and Edith Allen, Postgate was educated at St John’s College, Oxford. During World War I he sought exemption from military service as a socialist conscientious objector but was offered only non-combatant service in the army; forcibly conscripted, he was held at Cowley Barracks, Oxford, but found medically unfit for service and discharged. While he was in custody, his sister Margaret campaigned on his behalf, in the process meeting the socialist writer and economist G. D. H. Cole, whom she subsequently married. In 1918 Postgate married Daisy Lansbury, daughter of the Labour Party journalist and politician George Lansbury, and was barred from the family home (not disinherited) by his Tory father.

From 1918, Postgate worked as a journalist on the Daily Herald, then edited by his father-in-law, Lansbury. A founding member of the British Communist Party in 1920, Postgate left the Herald to join his colleague Francis Meynell on the staff of the CP’s first weekly, The Communist. Postgate soon became its editor and was briefly a major propagandist for the communist cause, but he left the party after falling out with its leadership in 1922. when the Communist International insisted that British communists follow the Moscow line. As such, he was one of Britain’s first left-wing former-communists, and the party came to treat him as an archetypal bourgeois intellectual renegade. He remained a key player in left journalism, however, returning to the Herald, then joining Lansbury on Lansbury’s Labour Weekly in 1925-1927.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s he published biographies of John Wilkes and Robert Emmet and his first novel, No Epitaph (1932), and worked as an editor for the Encyclopædia Britannica. In 1932 he visited the Soviet Union with a Fabian delegation and contributed to the collection Twelve Studies in Soviet Russia. Later in the 1930s he co-authored with G. D. H. Cole The Common People, a social history of Britain from the mid-18th century. Postgate was editor of the left-wing monthly Fact from 1937 to 1939 and editor of the socialist weekly Tribune from early 1940 until the end of 1941.

Always interested in food and wine, after World War II, Postgate assembled a band of volunteers to visit and report on UK restaurants. He edited the results into The Good Food Guide, first published in 1951. He continued to work as a journalist, mainly on the Co-operative movement’s Sunday paper Reynolds’ News, and during the 1950s and 1960s published several historical works and a biography of his father-in-law, The Life of George Lansbury.

Postgate wrote several mystery novels that drew on his socialist beliefs to set crime, detection and punishment in a broader social and economic context. His most famous novel is Verdict of Twelve (1940), his other novels include Somebody at the Door (1943) and The Ledger Is Kept (1953). (His sister and brother-in-law, the Coles, also became a successful mystery-writing duo.) After the death of H. G. Wells, Postgate edited some revisions of the two-volume Outline of History that Wells had first published in 1920.

Postgate’s son, Oliver, also a conscientious objector, became a leading creator of children’s television programmes in the UK. (From different sources)

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(Facsimile Dust Jacket, Collins The Crime Club (UK), 1940)

Synopsis: A woman is on trial for her life, accused of murder. The twelve members of the jury each carry their own secret burden of guilt and prejudice which could affect the outcome. In this extraordinary crime novel, we follow the trial through the eyes of the jurors as they hear the evidence and try to reach a unanimous verdict. Will they find the defendant guilty, or not guilty? And will the jurors’ decision be the correct one? Since its first publication in 1940, Verdict of Twelve has been widely hailed as a classic of British crime writing. (Source: British Library)

From Martin Edwards Introduction:

Verdict of Twelve is so often cited as a classic of crime fiction that it is hard to believe that it has languished out of sight for decades. This British Library Crime Classics edition puts an end to the years of bewildering neglect, and offers a new generation of readers the chance to find out why so many leading commentators have admired this novel for so long.

Raymond Chandler praised this “ironic study” of the working of a jury in his famous essay “The Simple Art of Murder”, while the eminent critic Julian Symons included the book in his list of the hundred “best” crime novels. I first came across Verdict of Twelve as a schoolboy, when it appeared in an excellent series of reprinted “Classics of Detection and Adventure” selected and introduced by Michael Gilbert. His enthusiasm for the book was infectious –he went so far as to suggest that it was the “single, shining exception” to the general proposition that detective novels written by dabblers in the genre, included such distinguished authors as E.C. Bentley and A.A. Milne, had failed to stand the test of time.

In my view Verdict of Twelve is highly recommended, however I’m not all that keen to read the other two mysteries, Somebody at the Door and The Ledger Is Kept. So far as I know, quality wise, they do not measure up to the expectation created by his first novel.

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