Friday, December 9, 2011
FFB: Dead Man's Watch - G.D.H. & M. Cole
A drowned man washes up on the banks of a creek in the village of Studleigh Pepperton in Devon. He is discovered by Ronald Bittaford who happens to be passing through the town with his girlfriend, Dorothy. To his shock he notices that the man is his uncle Percy, a relative Ron claims he has not been in contact with for years. Later, other people will step forward to identify the body as Percy's brother Harold, recently arrived from Australia. The problem of the identity of the corpse leads to much confusion among the inept local police and infuriates Sir Charles Wylie, a local baronet and J.P., on whose land the creek flows. He is indignant that the police refuse to see some rather obvious signs that the corpse is most likely a murder victim. In addition to some complicated issues dealing with the tides there is the fact that the corpse has been shaven after death and one witness identifying the body notes that a valuable watch is missing from the personal effects of the body.
The book is divided into three sections. Wilson appears in the first and last sections while the second is devoted mostly to the detective work of Sir Charles Wylie and his reluctant sleuthing partner Dorothy Daniells, Ron's girl friend, who takes to her job with gusto once she settles upon it. Wylie convinces her to spy on the locals in the town where Percy Bittaford was living with his wife. He asks her to write daily reports to him in letters and he will reply in kind with his follow-up detective work. Dorothy's letters are fine examples of the Coles' skill in capturing the language and world view of working class girl in pre-World War 2 era England. They are rambling, chatty, gossip-filled missives that also cleverly manage to contain some of the most important clues to the solution of the many mysteries surrounding the death of the drowned man. This kind of burying of clues reminded me the way Christianna Brand manages to plant her clues in the garrulous chit-chat among the dialog exchanges of her finely drawn characters.
What really grabbed my attention in this quick paced story are the varied cast of characters. From the reporter who inveigles his way into the crime scene and gets his big scoop passing himself off as a police aide to the oddball residents in Marine View, a boarding house right out of an Ealing Studio comedy, every person in this densely populated detective novel has their moment to shine. In addition to Sir Charles and Dorothy (a better and more likeable amateur sleuth pair may not exist in the genre) I liked the unctuous Mr. Fishcote, a landlord who manipulates Sir Charles into buying him drinks and expects a little cash for his dirt on the Bittaford brothers; and also Mrs. Devene, described as a "grass widow," who while waiting for her husband to return from his military duties in India likes to entertain gentlemen privately in her Marine View bedroom under the pretense of having tea. Sir Charles risks embarrassment and marring his reputation by accepting her offer to "go upstairs" so he can ply her for much needed information about the Bittafords.
Such a shame that the Coles have been out of print for decades. I highly recommend this book to determined book hounds and devotees of traditional detective fiction; it's well worth reading if you can find a copy. And I would also strongly hint to independent publishers that if ever a detective novel was deserving of a reissue this is definitely it. I plan to review more of the Coles' mystery novels I have managed to acquire over the years. A bigger and unsolved mystery is why I have waited so long to read them.