Friday, 2 March 2012

Forgotten Book - Dead Man's Watch

My Forgotten Book today is one that was the subject of a very interesting review not long ago on that marvellous blog Pretty Sinister Books. It is Dead Man’s Watch, by G.D.H. and Margaret Cole, and it was first published in 1931.

This novel was one of their first joint efforts, and it’s written with a breeziness and zest that was less evident in some of their later works. The Coles are writers who interest me, although their mysteries tend to be flawed, perhaps because they didn’t take them seriously enough in comparison to their political activism and Douglas’s non-fiction.

What is especially intriguing about this book is its construction, which is quite unusual. The story opens with a young man discovering a body in a pool on the land of Sir Charles Wylie. The young man identifies the body as that of an uncle of his, but the forensic evidence indicates that the dead man had his beard shaved off after death, and a puzzle about identities ensues. The next section of the book sees Sir Charles acting as an amateur sleuth before Superintendent Wilson becomes involved formally in the final section.

The trouble with this narrative structure is that key events, and key characters, are not seen directly by the reader. One has to make do with third party reports, especially in the form of letters sent by a young woman to Sir Charles. This lack of immediacy militates against suspense, and although the clues are set out quite fairly, the overall result is that one doesn’t care enough about the mystery. This is a pity, because the book does have some pleasing features, and there are several examples of a quiet wit that isn’t always associated with the Coles. I’m glad I read the book, though, and it’s worth a look for those interested in the way Golden Age writers tried to vary the standard whodunit formula.

5 comments:

John said...

I liked those letters of Dorothy. It gave us a different voice from the regular narrative. And it reminded me how Christie dealt with the written testimonies of the characters in Five Little Pigs. In both books there were vital clues embedded in the narratives. Anyway, had I not read this book first and chose one of their duller efforts (Murder in the Munition Works is entirely too concerned with labor relations and bored me to tears) I would never have sought out more of the Coles' detective fiction. Luckily I did and found that they wrote other books that are stronger than this entertaining but lighter work.

The Passing Tramp said...

I think this is a good summation of this book. I give a pretty extensive discussion of this one in my Coles section (unfortunately severed from the Humdrums book!).

Martin Edwards said...

John, Curt, thanks as ever. I suppose as I work in employment law I ought to read Munition Works...
Curt, I hope the Coles section sees the light of day very soon.

The Passing Tramp said...

I agree about Munition Works. There are some good elements in there (as is often the case with the Coles), but Douglas decided to let fly full bore with a treatise on WW2 labor-management relations, which gets rather boring.

Martin Edwards said...

Yes, I imagine that part of the problem was that they dashed the books off too quickly.