Thursday, December 6, 2012

IN BRIEF: Burglars in Bucks - G.D.H. & Margaret Cole

Burglars in Bucks (1930) is something of a threefold literary experiment. It is a detective novel without a murder, it has multiple points of view, and it attempts to tell a story in real time. I would also add that it reminded me more than anything of a P.G. Wodehouse novel even to the very Wodehousian title. Superintendent Wilson is on the case again in a raucous adventure subtitled "The Crime and the Poltergeist".

Essentially, the novel is presented as a chronological dossier of the written evidence gathered in the case of a burglary that occurred on Halloween night following a party in Peter Gurney's home. We are given the story through multiple accounts (both first and second hand) in a series of letters, telegrams, newspaper clippings, police memos and reports, plus a few fanciful recreations of phone calls and private conversations. In discussing writing up one of his cases with Wilson Dr. Michael Prendergast proposes the chronology idea. The case would have been solved sooner had Wilson been privy to some information not handed over until after the conclusion of the investigation. Wilson believes that any reader would be bored with a straightforward telling of a police case with only written evidence presented to him as it was received. He also thinks any reader would be able to outguess the police detective long before the solution is discovered. The doctor strongly disagrees.

This mystery without a murder proves to be intriguing. It's not just a simple story of a stolen emerald necklace. The plot will evolve into a multi-layered richness that includes con artists, false identities, black market antique trading, drug addiction, spiritualist trickery, and the looming threat of a murder charge when one of the characters is violently beaten and clings to life in a hospital for most of the book. There is even a message in code that amateur cryptographers might easily be able to break before the police do.

The Cole's surprising sense of humor is the real highlight of the book largely due to the inclusion of the amusing letters from Everard Blatchington, a recurring roguish character in the early Cole detective novels who might have stepped out of the halls of Blandings or Brinkley Manor. Detective novel fans who are also partial to the kind of waggish British wit and antics found in the works of P. G. Wodehouse are sure to get much enjoyment from Burglars in Bucks.

In the US the book was released as The Berkshire Mystery, but it is much scarcer than the UK edition. Though there are few copies of the UK edition I did find one reading copy for $20. It may not be there for long after this review. Better hop to it if you want it! The rest range from $40 to $100, though judging by the descriptions their condition doesn't merit those prices. Burglars in Bucks can also be found in the first Collins Crime Club Omnibus which also includes The Noose by Philip MacDonald, Q. E. D. by Lynn Brock, and Sir John Magill's Last Journey by Freeman Wills Crofts.


  1. One of the great married couples, the Mystery. Other, Kelley Roos, the Lockridge, then explored other genres police. This, however, remained faithful to the Mystery. Always quite brilliant. Only one other couple, to some extent, overcame this, and it was the couple formed by Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning.
    I only have one novel of the Cole, but the Cole are rare, at least in Italy: The Missing Aunt (Italian title = La scomparsa di mia zia).
    Did you notice how in those years several classical authors wrote novels that were intended, uncles and aunts? Richard Hull, C. H. B. Kitchin (who wrote a novel about an uncle and a novel about an aunt), Agatha Christie, etc ...
    Should you to put in your Trivia few questions about uncles, not you think?
    Think about it for next time! :-)

    1. I have all the Bristow and Mannign books but have only read THE INVISIBLE HOST. I'll have to hold my judgment of them until I read more. I hesitate to use the word brilliant. Their first book is only notable for its eerie similarity to TEN LITTLE INDIANS. But too much hysteria and over-the-top melodrama in the story compared to the way Christie handled the same plot with true terror and bit of poignancy for some of the fated characters.

  2. Never read a Cole book yet - not that I'm bragging - sounds like I've been missing out (again!). Sounds a bit liek they were inspired by THE MOONSTONE perhaps?

    As ever, cheers mate.


    1. There are only so many posts in a single year in which I can draw comparisons to THE MOONSTONE, Sergio. But points to you for noticing the structure is similar. I think, however, the Coles were a lot more playful with the different types of narrative. At times the book adopts the format of a playscript with stage directions in parentheses. A very fun book despite how some purists denigrate it for not having a murder. Here's another one I nominate for a reissued edition.

  3. I think this is one of their best books, personally. Everard is a good character, much better than Wilson, imo.

    Coincidentally, it came out the same year as Sayers' epistolary Documents in the Case. Did this subject come up at an early Detection Club dinner?

    1. Blatchington was the best part of the book. Extremely Wodehousian, seveal times I laughed out loud. His wife's reply letters were almost as great. Though the opne fo the twists in THE BLATCHINGTON TANGLE is ruined by reading this book first I am now interested in reading all the books Everard Blatchington appears in. I think there are two others - DR. TANCRED BEGINS and one more.

    2. But I will not say that they are brilliant novels by Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning. I was referring to Cole. And in enlarged form to Lockridge.
      And it is impossible to make a comparison between Christie and the couple Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning: it is clear that Christie overtaking them big time! However, it remains the basic quid: who was the first to have the idea that lies at the basis of the two novels? I would opt for the couple: their novel is too spartan and is a classical divertissement, has no pretensions other than those to entertain, the references and the subtleties of Christie, and the atmosphere serious threat makes me think of something built for diversification by another. I do not know. Although the murderous intent behind the novel torque than the Christie, it seems to me much evil.
      Beyond this, I only have a couple of other novel: The Mardi Gras Murders, translated recently in Italy under the title "I delitti di Carnevale"
      Instead of the object of your article, John, that is, Cole, there's very little I have. In addition to the novel I mentioned, mostly short stories, and of course the collaboration of the pair to the Detection Club. So I do not seem so strange that one of the Detection Club dinner anyone tell that in another section of the book. The 13 at the table in the novel "Lord Edgware Dies" may have been inspired by the 13 members of the fine detection club. I think I read this thing in the first essay of Curran. And besides, the American title of this novel by Christie is "Thirteen at Dinner".

  4. I love this review, John, so well done. But I probably won't be able to read the book since my budget doesn't allow for 20 buck reading copies.
    Still, I religiously add your titles (the ones that pique my interest, at any rate) to my Vintage List and hope for the best. Every now and then I check Alibris and other sites and laugh at the prices.

    Hope springs eternal. :)

  5. The Everard Blatchington novels are:

    The Blatchington Tangle (1926)
    Burglars in Bucks (1930)
    Death of a Star (1932)
    Death in the Quarry (1934)
    Scandal at School (1935)
    Disgrace to the College (1937)

    The first and last are by Douglas Cole, the middle four by Margaret.

    I discuss the authorship question in the Spring 2012 issue of Geoff Bradley's CADS.

    Dr. Tancred Begins and Last Will and Testament have the not especially interesting, in my view, Dr. Tancred.

  6. Does the Burglary take place in Bucks or Berks? "Burglars in Bucks" is confusing, but "Burglars in Berks" has obscene connotations for an English reader- even more so in 1930. However, "The Berkshire Mystery" is such a banal title it deserved to flop.

    1. Berkshire borders Buckinghamshire, so that may be it! Agree that The Berkshire Mystery is about as banal as they come as a title.