G. D. H. and Margaret Cole (1889–1959 and 1893–1980, respectively)


George-douglas-howard-coleOIP (1)George Douglas Howard Cole and his wife Margaret (1889–1959 and 1893–1980, respectively) collaborated on 29 books of detective fiction. They are the creators of ‘Henry Wilson’, a Superintendent of Scotland Yard.

George Douglas Howard Cole (September 25, 1889 – January 14, 1959) was an English journalist, economist and historian. He was a long-time member of the Fabian Society and a principal proponent of Guild Socialist ideas. Educated at St. Paul’s School, Cole became involved in Fabianism while studying at Balliol College, Oxford, joining the Fabian Society executive under the sponsorship of Sidney Webb.

Dame Margaret Isabel Cole (May 6, 1893 – May 7, 1980) was an English socialist politician. Daughter of John Percival Postgate and Edith Allen, Margaret was educated at Roedean School and Girton College, Cambridge. While at Girton, through her reading of H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw and others, she came to question the Anglicanism of her upbringing and to embrace atheism, socialism and feminism. On successfully completing her course (Cambridge did not allow women to graduate formally until 1947), Margaret became a classics teacher at St. Paul’s Girls’ School. She was the sister of Raymond Postgate, a scholar, journalist and mystery writer.

During World War I, Cole was a conscientious objector and his involvement in the campaign against conscription brought him into contact with Margaret Postgate whom he married in 1918. The couple both worked for the Fabian Society for the next six years before moving to Oxford where Cole started writing for the Manchester Guardian. During these years, he also authored several economic and historical works including biographies of William Cobbett and Robert Owen. He became reader in economics at University College, Oxford. In 1944, Cole became the first Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford. He was succeeded in the chair by Isaiah Berlin. Margaret Isabel Cole and Douglas Cole had three children, Janet (known as Jane and born in February 1921), Anne (born in October 1922) and Humphrey (born in 1928).

During World War I, Margaret’s brother Raymond sought exemption from military service as a conscientious objector but, without the defence of a religious objection, was jailed under the Military Service Act. Margaret’s support for her brother led her to a belief in pacifism. During her subsequent campaign against conscription, she met G. D. H. Cole whom she married in 1918. The couple worked together for the Fabian Society before moving to Oxford in 1924 where they both taught and wrote. In the early 1930s, Margaret abandoned her pacifism in reaction to the suppression of socialist movements by the National Socialist governments in Germany and Austria and to the events of the Spanish Civil War. In 1941, she was co-opted to the Education Committee of the London County Council, on the nomination of Herbert Morrison, and became a champion of comprehensive education. She was a member of the Inner London Education Authority from its creation in 1965 until her retirement from public life in 1967.

Cole was a powerful influence on the life of the young Harold Wilson whom he taught, worked with and convinced to join the Labour Party.

Cole and his wife co-authored a number of mystery novels. Both of them wrote many other books including Margaret’s biography of her husband. Their series characters were Superintendent Henry Wilson, Everard Blatchington and Dr Tancred. (Various sources like Wikipedia and Gadetection)

The Coles are two of the three writers explored in depth in Curtis Evans’ book The Spectrum of English Murder: The Detective Fiction of Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher and G. D. H. and Margaret Cole (2015). Keep reading here.

‘An admirer of Freeman Wills Crofts’ detective stories, Douglas published The Brooklyn Murders in 1923, but all the Coles’ later books appeared under their joint names. Their fiction has been described as “humdrum”, an impression strengthened by Superintendent Wilson’s dullness. Many of the books were written in haste, and a lack of care often shows. Nevertheless, the Coles indulged in an occasional interesting experiment, as with their two-volume Pendexter Saga, comprising Dr Tancred Begins (1935) and Last Will and Testament (1936), two linked novels about crimes separated by a quarter of a century. The books introduced a new detective, Dr Benjamin Tancred, although he was scarcely more memorable than Wilson.’ (The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards)

‘The Coles are very uneven. Their early books (1923-31/34?) are much better than a lot of contemporary detective stories. They’re well-written, have better than average characterisation, generally sharp satire, ingenious ideas, and are politically intelligent and less dated than most. Although not as good as Sayers, they are comparable to Christie from the same period. Death of a Millionaire (1925), The Murder at Crome House (1927), The Man from the River (1928) and Dead Man’s Watch (1932) are all excellent (possibly also The Great Southern Mystery (1931) and Death in the Quarry (1934), neither of which I’ve read yet), and at least one short story, “In a Telephone Cabinet”, is brilliant.’ (Nick Fuller, source: gadetection)

The Brooklyn Murders introduced Superintendent Henry Wilson, sleuthing alongside a young couple in the same mould as Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. The Coles decided to play the detective game together, and co-write a follow-up. Death of a Millionaire appeared under the joint by-line of ‘G. D. H. and M. Cole’, the brand name for all the subsequent novels, whoever wrote most of the text. The book was unusual in its day for its sympathetic portrayal of trade union leaders and refusal to demonize Bolsheviks. Unfortunately, Superintendent Wilson’s lack of charisma made Inspector French seem like a quirky maverick. Even when he resigned briefly from Scotland Yard to operate as a private eye, Wilson was no Sam Spade. The most exciting thing that happens to him during the series is that he grows six inches taller – a simple mistake, Margaret confessed. Even so, his career lasted for two decades. Having settled a plot in outline, one spouse wrote a first draft which the couple then discussed and worked on together.’  (The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards)

Bibliography: Superintendent Wilson series: Brooklyn Murders (1923); The Death of a Millionaire (1925); The Blatchington Tangle (1926); Superintendent Wilson’s Holiday (1928); The Berkshire Mystery (1930) aka Burglars in Bucks; The Corpse in the Constable’s Garden (1931); Great Southern Mystery (1931); Dead Man’s Watch (1932); Death in the Quarry (1934); End of an Ancient Mariner (1934); Big Business Murder (1935); Last Will and Testament (1936); Greek Tragedy (1939); Off with Her Head (1939); Murder at the Munition Works (1940); Birthday Gifts (1946); and The Way of All Flesh (1953).

Unfortunately G. D. H. and Margaret Cole novels are out of print and hard to find, at least in my country. Curtis Evans’ book The Spectrum of English Murder: The Detective Fiction of Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher and G. D. H. and Margaret Cole (2015) is also out of print. I’m going to try and get it , if I can find it at a reasonable price. The Death of a Millionaire is not available either at open library.

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(Facsimile Dust Jacket, Collins The Crime Club (UK), 1925)

Hugh Radlett was one of the richest men in the United States. After a breach with his wife he disappeared, and was heard nothing of for several years. Then he turned up again in London, coming from Russia, where, with his partner, John Pasquett, he had fixed up a great mining commission with the Soviet Government. The morning after his arrival his suite at the hotel is found in disorder, with all the signs of a violent struggle. An eye-witness, discovered under curious circumstances, deposes to having seen the murderer and Radlett’s dead body. But the body cannot be found, and the man suspected of the crime, a Russian named Rosenbaum, has left before the discovery with a heavy trunk. How did Hugh Radlett die, and what has become of his body? That is the problem Mr. Cole sets his reader to solve. The unravelling of the mystery leads the reader a fine dance, and introduces him to a number of interesting characters – from Lord Ealing, the great financier politician, to Norah Culpepper, a girl with a nerve as well as an attractive personality. But the story is dominated by the character of Jack Pasquett, the dead man’s partner. Not till the very end will any save the most discerning reader get to the bottom of Mr. Cole’s baffling and ingenious plot. (Source: Penguin Books, 1950).

Like all of Douglas and Margaret’s mystery fiction from 1925 onwards, The Death of a Millionaire was credited to both spouses, though they composed their fiction separately. Detective novels by the Coles appeared annually for nearly two decades, until during the midst of the Second World War, when the highly politically-engaged couple, preoccupied with momentous events at home and abroad, simply lost interest in writing them. (Murder in the Closet: Essays on Queer Clues in Crime Fiction Before Stonewall by Curtis Evans)

The Death of a Millionaire has been reviewed, among others, by Nick Fuller at The Grandest Game in the World, and by Martin Edwards at ‘Do You Write Under Your Own Name?’.

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