The Spectrum of English Murder: The Detective Fiction of Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher and G. D. H. and Margaret Cole (2015) by Curtis Evans

Although I am a keen reader of Curtis Evans’ excellent blog, The Passing Tramp, this is the first time I have read one of his publications. An oversight indeed!

The book I am reading by Evans’ today, was based on two chapters he had written originally for another of his works: Masters of the Humdrum Mystery: Cecil John Charles Street, Freeman Wills Crofts, Alfred Walter Stewart and the British Detective Novel, 1920-1961 (2012). However due to reasons of length these two chapters were excised and instead began the basis for today’s read. From the outset, Evans indicates that he is keen to challenge, critique and complicate the often repeated notion that ‘the British Golden Age of detective fiction was politically and socially conservative,’ using the work of Henry Wade and G. D. H. and Margaret Cole to do so.

In each chapter Evans provides background information on the writers before systematically discussing their novels and short stories. This was a very helpful approach, particularly in the chapter concerning Henry Wade, as the political outlook, the way the gentry and the police are depicted, morph, transform and reverse several times over the course Wade’s oeuvre. Before WW2, Wade was much more critical of the police and corruption (Constable Guard Thyself (1934) and Released for Death (1938)) for instance, but post WW2, whilst Labour was in power, Wade bemoaned the increased taxation of the landed gentry, whilst also coming across as much more reactionary (see Diplomat’s Folly (1951), Be Kind to the Killer (1952) and Too Soon to Die (1953)). I admit this is a simplification, but I wanted to show the general trend that Evans goes into with much more detail and nuance, as I think without Evans’ chronological approach, this trend would have been harder to grasp. A particularly amusing anecdote of Wade’s critical attitude towards the Labour government can be found in a letter he wrote to Dorothy L Sayers. Post WW2, his health was not so good, suffering from horrendous nose bleeds. Recalling one such time he wrote that: ‘I more or less fainted and lay on the floor choking in blood […] Mr. Bevan took 2 ½ hours to get me into hospital and cauterised.’

The way the landed gentry is presented in Wade’s work is a key aspect Evans discusses a lot in the book, as Wade’s representation of this strata of society is far from being black and white, with Wade being fully aware of the flaws among this class and how they contributed towards their own decline. He was not above satirising ‘provincial society and politics,’ such as in The Dying Alderman (1930), which is the debut for Inspector Lott, Wade’s second serial detective, who in fact has left wing leanings. High Sheriff (1937), is also a key example of how Wade charts the failings of the aristocracy. Yet on the other hand there is often a great deal of sympathy for such people, with Wade’s work often touching on how WW1 especially, but also WW2, crippled such families, as well as society as a whole (Lonely Magdalen (1940)).

Evans also highlights the times when Wade challenged anti-Semitism, (such as in The Duke of York’s Step (1929)), as well as those times where he created more sexually out spoken characters, (such as in The Missing Partners (1928)). In addition, the chapter on Wade also looks at the variety of plots and styles Wade incorporated in his work, contributing to the development of the police procedural, as well as the inverted crime novel.

Having only read The Man from the River (1928) by the Coles, I was looking forward to finding out more about them in this book. Unlike Wade who was keen to experiment with his writing and to ensure strong plots as well as strong characterisation, the Coles to me seem much less invested in their mystery writing. Outside of these novels they were much better known for their academic tomes on economy and socialism. This has led some critics to suggest that their left political leanings rarely intruded on their mystery fiction, but again Evans shows that the reality is much less simple. Again a general summary could be that in some of their novels, their leftist leanings and anti-capitalist views (Death of a Millionaire (1925), The Affair at Aliquid (1933), The Brothers Sackville (1936), Murder at the Munition Works (1940), Dead Man’s Watch (1931) and Death of a Star (1932)) are very much evident, whilst in others the hypocrisy they exhibited in their own lives seems more apparent. This last statement probably needs unpacking, as it was not an idea I was really aware of until reading the book. On the one hand they were active socialists, outspoken on social ills (Death of a Star), plight of enemy aliens in WW2 (Knife in the Dark (1941)), abortion, financial swindles and library censorship (Poison in the Garden Suburb (1929)), yet their childhood backgrounds, choice of careers and lifestyles, did mean that their social principles did not always affect their daily lives. They were elitist towards servants and rather ignorant of their own domestics’ lives and Margaret in fact said that her husband could not have done without having any servants at home. I guess perhaps they were not immune to their cultural and literary environments and this can be seen in the way that they had many Jewish friends and were against anti-Semitism, yet seemed to be quite happy including stereotypical Jewish characters in some of their books.

In some respects I think this book has made me more interested in the Coles’ work, not necessarily for their mystery writing skills, but for the way they handled certain themes, though Evans’ is helpful in pointing out the mysteries which he thinks are their strongest. One short story I am particularly keen to read by them is ‘A Lesson in Crime,’ which has a thriller hack writer, (spoof of Edgar Wallace), as the victim, killed by someone infuriated with their sloppy and poor writing.

In a way I feel like this review has only shown a glimmer of the information and ideas this book contains, which is probably a good thing. I think this book has a lot to offer. It is an accessible, yet informing read, which is suitable for readers new or familiar to these authors. Spoiler warnings are included so you don’t run the risk of having a story spoilt. At times I think the overall argument concerning the political outlooks of the writers is sometimes lost in descriptions of the novels and perhaps key words from the central thesis could have been used a bit more in examination of the novels. However, on the upside this book gives a very enjoyable overview of the novels and stories, which you don’t often get in other works on mystery fiction, which are interested more in breadth rather than depth. So if you are thinking of trying Wade or the Coles’ works then this would be an ideal guide on where to start and for those who have already read a few novels by these authors, this book will provide invaluable context.

Rating: 4/5


  1. This book had an odd genesis, I’ll admit, in that it was supposed to be included with Masters of the Humdrum Mystery. But this would have made an extremely long book, something like 235,000 words. In the manuscript I already had dubbed the Coles and Wade “false” Humdrums, in contrast with Street, Connington and Crofts, the “true” ones, so the publisher suggested cutting the “false” Humdrums from the book.

    In the end it may have worked out for the best. In the interim between Masters and Spectrum I revised the Coles section somewhat, including further discussion on the novels and especially the short stories, making it stronger I think. It may have been better to give the Coles and Wade a separate book, getting beyond the Humdrums label, which as we move to a historiographical world less dominated by the dogma of Julian Symons, may have less relevance anyway.

    Of course I needed a new theme for the book and the political one came to mind, as its obvious to me that Wade was interested in using the detective novel to look at English society in a serious way and the Coles used satire to do the same thing, albeit more casually. Classifying them as “Humdrums,” as Julian Symons does, seems wrong to me, as they were interested in more than the puzzle. Wade had the ambition of a mainstream novelist and the Coles often wrote as satirists.

    Getting beyond the books and to the authors, I like Wade better as a person, from what I learned of him. Of course people who have read Martin’s book will already know about Douglas Cole’s homosexual leanings, a topic to which I devote an essay in Murder in the Closet (where I relate it to his book The Death of a Millionaire), but my impression is that Margaret Cole’s prickly and sometimes unpleasant personality will be more of a revelation to people here. (See, for example, her interactions with the Detection Club, where she was not popular.) It’s not a revelation that affluent leftists don’t always stay true on a personal level to the ideals they publicly espouse, but it was interesting to document the seeming inconsistencies, nevertheless.

    As far as Wade is concerned, it’s a pattern I’ve seen frequently with Golden Age detective novelists of the conservative stripe (which is the preponderance of them, especially in the UK), even the less orthodox ones, like Wade. They ascendance of the Labour government after the war very much troubled them. You see it in Sayers, Christie, John Dickson Carr, Crofts, Street, Wade and many others. The Coles of course viewed things quite differently, but they had stopped writing, You get glimmers of what they might have written in their later books, however: Murder at the Munition Works, Knife in the Dark, Toper’s End.

    I hope the book both illuminates social and political themes in the works of a notable group of detective novelists, and provides a through overview of their work. As far as I know, I read every piece of detective fiction they ever wrote. Thanks for the review.

    Liked by 2 people

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