The Detection Club Project: Margaret Cole – The Murder at Crome House

Image Credit: Dame Margaret Isabel Cole by Stella Bowen © National Portrait Gallery, London, licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0

#6: Margaret Cole

Margaret was a dynamic young woman, with a ‘mop of short thick black wavy hair in which is set swarthy complexion, sharp nose and chin and most brilliantly defiant eyes’.

Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (2015)

After tackling half of a short-lived writing partnership last time around, this time around I am taking as my subject one member of a rather more long-lived and prolific crime-writing partnership – Margaret Cole.

Just like last time I pondered whether it would be best to tackle the Coles together as one ‘writer’ or separately. There is always a question of how you identify the aspects of a book that relate to one member of a writing partnership over another. As it happens however the Coles’ method of writing appears to have been relatively unusual as Martin Edwards describes:

The Coles decided to play the detective game together… Having settled a plot in outline, one spouse wrote a first draft which the couple then discussed and worked on together.

Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (2015)

Crime historian Curtis Evans in The Spectrum of English Murder, a comparative study of the lives and work of the Coles and fellow Detection Club member Henry Wade, goes into greater detail on this practice and produces a breakdown of which books he believed Margaret and her husband were responsible for based both on sources and textural analysis. The earliest work he attributes primarily to Margaret is the one I will be writing about below – 1927’s The Murder at Crome House.

Based on what I have read both in Edwards’ and Evans’ books, Margaret Cole seems to have been a fascinating individual. Born Margaret Postgate (if that name seems familiar it may be because her brother Raymond would also become a detective fiction writer), she rejected her father’s conservative views and instead ’embraced socialism, atheism, feminism and pipe-smoking’.

Margaret taught for a while before meeting Douglas Cole, an economist, while working on a campaign against conscription. Both would go on to work for the Fabian Society, promoting the cause of democratic socialism. Their courtship and marriage were both quite unusual and both Evans and Edwards’ books do a good job of exploring those aspects of their personal lives.

Douglas was the first to take to writing crime fiction, taking it up during a period recovering from a bout of pneumonia and finishing it when Margaret bet him that he wouldn’t. Detective fiction became a way of supplementing their income from their academic works and the couple became quite prolific over a period of about twenty years with many of their novels featuring series sleuth Superintendent Wilson (I previously reviewed End of an Ancient Mariner from that series).

Martin Edwards’ book paints a picture of Margaret as the most social of the two, comfortable in a wide mix of company which the Detection Club will have certainly offered as many of its members will have been of quite different political persuasions from the couple. It seems though that Margaret enjoyed debating with those other members.

While the Coles produced quite a substantial body of work, eventually their interest in the genre would collapse. Margaret did remain prominent in other aspects of her life however, serving on London County Council’s Education Committee and later the Inner London Education Authority. She would be given an OBE and later MBE in recognition of her services to local government and education.

So, how best to assess the contribution and style of Margaret Cole? Honestly, I am not entirely sure. The best I can think to do is to look at a book they wrote together and then to read the book we know was entirely the work of G. D. H. Cole to see what’s different. To do the latter we will have to wait until I get hold of The Brooklyn Murders. In the meantime, below are my thoughts on The Murder at Crome House.

The Murder at Crome House by G. D. H. and Margaret Cole

Originally published in 1927

What would you do if you, a University lecturer with no qualifications for detective work, were suddenly called upon to vindicate a friend’s name by discovering the author of a crime committed nearly six months before, and your only clue led nowhere?  This is the problem which confronted James Flint and his friends in the murder of Sir Harry Wye, for which his stepson had so nearly been hanged; and the story tells how, with no superhuman sleuth or vast scientific apparatus to assist them, but merely by patiently using their wits, the little group at last succeeded in clearing the unfortunate suspect and unmasking a peculiarly atrocious scoundrel.  The unravelling brings them up against many remarkable and entertaining characters, and into exciting situations in which one of them is nearly killed before the end is reached; but the signal fact about this story, unlike most detective yarns, is that it might have happened to any one.

The Murder at Crome House begins with James Flint, an academic, finding an odd photograph of a man appearing to prepare to shoot another man tucked inside a library book. He is disposed to think of the thing as a prank and puts it in the fire only to be surprised with a visit from the previous borrower who has come in search of the picture. Wrongly believing it to be burned, Flint assures him that the picture is no more and is surprised that the man seems pleased and leaves happily. When he discovers the picture again later that day he plans to return it until he learns that the photograph is similar to another that had been evidence in a recently concluded murder trial.

The victim in that trial was Sir Harry Wye, a rather unpleasant rogue who seems to have kept poor company and had his share of enemies. The one accused of his murder had been his stepson, believed lost at sea many years earlier, who returned to England with claims that Wye had cheated him out of an inheritance from his mother. Many in the community believed him guilty but he was spotted elsewhere at about the time of the murder, leaving him to escape the gallows with his life but with his reputation in tatters.

Rather unusually then the authors are presenting us with a story where the crime and much of the investigation has already taken place at the start of the novel. Our role, and that of the amateur sleuths, is not so much to collect the evidence as to weigh it and make connections between the details to test its reliability and build a complete picture of the affair.

The most distinctive aspect of the crime is that initial hook – the rather odd photographs. In some ways this element feels quite modern, seeming to anticipate decades of later works with murders caught on camera, but because the shot is a still rather than a video it feels mechanically quite contrived. Try as I might, I couldn’t think of a way that this might turn out to be a genuine photograph and so instead we are stuck wondering just how and why this could factor into the case itself and this aspect of the mystery gets sidelined for much of the novel.

Instead our focus is that familiar one of trying to break an alibi. In this case we are presented with several possible suspects but those with the opportunity seem to have no motive while those who might have wanted Wye dead all seem to have been seen some distance from the house at the time of the murder.

Flint initially seems reluctant to get involved but after hearing more about the murder he begins to believe that the stepson’s story, which admittedly sounds quite odd and far-fetched, may be truthful. He and a few others connected with that man decide to work together to seek out evidence that might prove his innocence and uncover the real killer’s identity.

This idea of a group of amateurs all pitching in together to investigate is a rather charming one and while I think the cheery volunteer card is played perhaps once too often, I think it allows for a steady accumulation of evidence. Equally important though is that I believe it helps to reinforce the idea that the murdered man was really not a nice person and that Oliver, foolish as he can seem, is actually quite appealing and sympathetic.

One aspect of the book that passed me by until it was pointed out to me is that our hero, Flint, shares a number of attributes in common with Margaret’s husband Douglas (G. D. H. Cole). It is not just their backgrounds as academics but their temperaments are similar too. While Flint is not the warmest of characters, I quite enjoyed him as a protagonist and found myself wishing that he had been used again as this is, unfortunately, a standalone work.

While Flint strikes me as a pretty engaging protagonist, I found a few of the other characters seemed much less complex and compelling by comparison. Some of that reflects that most are there to serve some plotting purpose, entering to dispense a single piece of information before exiting the stage. In other cases however I think the authors fall into the mistake of writing types and so some characters feel a little generic or clumsily drawn. One passage in particular, concerning a drunken witness, felt a little overwritten while a completely incidental character, a Japanese student, is treated purely as a ‘gag’ and written in a way I found rather cringeworthy.

Other aspects of the story work a little better. While I do think the investigation moves a tad slowly in the middle of the novel, the Coles provide plenty of revelations towards the end, giving the sense that we are building to a final revelation.

That big reveal when it comes was not particularly surprising to me as I felt that the killer’s identity does stand out from close to the start of the novel, but I enjoyed reading this to see just how that character might be caught. Some aspects of that solution are pretty strong though I do think there is an aspect of how it was accomplished that feels rather lazy and ought to have been considered much earlier in the story. Perhaps more importantly, there are a few action-oriented moments towards the end of the piece that I felt did a good job of raising the tension and our anticipation of the villain being caught.

The Verdict: This book has some interesting elements but perhaps takes a little too long getting to its conclusion, rendering it a little anticlimactic.

Second Opinions:

Nick @ The Grandest Game in the World found the writing witty but the comparison with Why Didn’t They Ask Evans feels quite apt.

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