Meet The Coles Transcript

Caroline: Even as recently as ten years ago, being a fan of golden age detective fiction was a very different experience. Today, we’re living in a thriving culture of reprints, with previously hard-to-find titles being brought back into mainstream accessibility in gorgeous new editions with informative introductions. But it certainly wasn’t always this way: for a long time, the style of mystery that we love from the 1920s and 1930s was out of favour with both publishers and the majority of the reading public. Some authors, like Agatha Christie, have always remained in print and readily available. Others weren’t so fortunate. Unless you got lucky in a secondhand bookshop or a library, there was often no way of getting hold of a more obscure title.

Fortunately, this is a problem that is now largely behind us. Most of the major crime writers from the interwar years are now relatively easy to track down in physical or digital form, or both. With one really significant exception. They were founding members of the Detection Club, wrote 28 mystery novels beginning in 1923, created a longrunning series detective, were published in the famous green Penguin crime series, and yet you still need to be very fortunate to find an affordable copy of one of their books to buy.

Today, we’re going to meet the Coles.


Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton. Before we dive into the episode proper, I wanted to let you know that I’m doing a special live episode of the podcast on 15th July at 7pm UK time, all about the many, many film and TV adaptations that have been made of Agatha Christie’s work. It’s happening online on YouTube and is completely free to attend. My guest will be Teresa Peschel, author of Agatha Christie, She Watched, and there will be an opportunity for you to ask questions live. The event will also be available to watch back afterwards if you can’t make it on the day. This is my thank you for all the support listeners gave to the show during last year’s pledge drive, and I hope as many of you as possible will be able to come. Head to now or click the link in the episode description to be notified when we start.


So who are “the Coles”? Well, they were a married couple, GDH or George Douglas Howard Cole and Margaret Cole, who published their mysteries together in the 1920s, 30s and 40s under the name GDH and Margaret Cole — although the writing might not have been as much of a joint enterprise as this suggests, as we’ll find out later. Whereas many of the other original members of the Detection Club had been involved in popular fiction in one way or another before, the Coles were a bit more of a surprise entry to the golden age of detective fiction. Their experience was in quite another field altogether.

Curtis: The Coles were a prominent English intellectual couple between the wars and into the 1950s. He died in 1959. She died I think in 1980. He was a Oxford professor. She was involved in adult education as well, did night school teaching, but they both did a just a humongous amount of writing on economic and political topics.

Caroline: This is Curtis Evans, a fan and scholar of detective fiction, who has, among other titles, published a book that covers the Coles and their work titled The Spectrum of English Murder. As he suggests, the Coles were principally known in the early 1920s for their left-wing politics and their work in that sphere: Douglas Cole, for instance, had already published works with titles like The World of Labour and An Introduction to Trade Unionism, and would go on to make waves in the 1930s with books including The Intelligent Man’s Guide Through World Chaos and What Marx Really Meant.

Curtis: He came from pretty middle class or bourgeois origins as they have said back then, but was a very precocious young man. Really pretty brilliant, I guess you’d say. Margaret, she was the daughter of a Cambridge Latin professor, John Percival Postgate, and she was also the sister of Raymond Postgate, who was another prominent leftist intellectual and also wrote detective fiction.

Caroline: During the First World War, Raymond Postgate became a conscientious objector from conscription on the grounds of his socialist politics and was imprisoned for refusing to obey military orders. As a result, his sister Margaret become a prominent campaigner for pacifism, and it was in this cause that she met Douglas Cole. They were both also involved with the Fabian Society, a British socialist organisation gaining prominence in this time for its advocacy of social democracy without the kind of revolution that had occurred in Russia in 1917. The couple married in 1918, although theirs was to be far from a conventional union: Douglas had previously experienced attraction to men and had very little interest in sex — as Margaret wrote in the biography of her husband she published after his death, “If he had not married, I doubt very much whether he would have had any sex-life at all in the ordinary sense.” They did have children — Janet was born in 1921, Anne in 1922 and Humphrey in 1928. “He accepted his children as they came and was a kind father to them, but I doubt whether he would have felt any deprivation if he had had none,” Margaret later wrote. In the early 1930s, Douglas was diagnosed with diabetes and from then until his death twenty years later, according to his wife, his “asexuality was greatly increased”. I don’t believe that it’s necessarily useful to put modern labels on people who lived a century ago, but I do think that it is useful context for understanding the life and work of this couple to know that their 41-year marriage and intellectual partnership was not at all typical according to the conventions of the time in which they lived.

They got their start with detective fiction the same way that many writers do — they were readers first.

Curtis: They like a lot of intellectuals during the, between the war period, the so-called Golden Age of Detective Fiction, they got interested in reading detective fiction. It just became kind of a vogue for intellectuals caught on other people too. But you know, the intellectual class really promoted it.

Caroline: And like some other writers — Agatha Christie and Freeman Wills Crofts spring to mind — Douglas Cole made his first attempt at writing a mystery while laid up in bed after a mild bout of pneumonia.

Curtis: He ended up writing one kind of on a bet with her where she was suggesting he wouldn’t be able to do it, and she said that spurred him on, he was convalescing from illness and so he wrote one that was credited to him alone in 1923, this same year as Dorothy L. Sayers’ Whose body, so they go back quite early, really. This is like three years after Agatha Christie published her first mystery, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. And Freeman Wills Crofts published The Cask in 1920. So the Coles were early in the picture.

Caroline: That first detective novel from 1923, The Brooklyn Murders, was credited to Douglas Cole alone. It is, by the way, nothing to do with the borough of New York — Douglas just named his central character, a rich uncle whose two heirs-slash-nephews are found dead, Sir Vernon Brooklyn. Collins, the publisher, had liked Douglas’s take on the emerging form of the golden age mystery, although they did tell him that his original draft contained too many murders; he cut one of the particularly gory deaths out in response, and then they published it. This first book, and the few that followed, was very influenced by the alibi-driven style of Freeman Wills Crofts. Although perhaps not an immediate runaway hit, it did well enough for Collins to countenance another, no doubt influenced in part by the public’s increasingly strong appetite for anything that could be described as a murder mystery. And it was this next novel that saw the establishment of the “GDH and Margaret Cole” byline, what Margaret called their “trade name”, even though at this point it was still Douglas doing all the writing. This second effort is notable both because it establishes Superintendent Wilson as their series detective, and because it brings in the values that dominated the rest of their lives.

Curtis: Two years later, he published The Death of a Millionaire, which is very unusual among golden age mysteries because it’s one that definitely brings in the leftist perspective. There’s a very villainous English Lord. He’s completely corrupt and he’s in the government, and he’s in involved in all these crooked corporations, got his hands and all these things.

It’s a murder mystery, but it’s really more like a satirical look at English society and very critical of what Cole sees as the corruption in it. That, that is unusual in golden age mystery, you know, so I think that obviously got them a lot of attention.

Caroline: Even fifty years later, when she published her biography of her husband in 1971, Margaret Cole noted wryly that people who knew them from their political work still found it “surprising” that they had also written so much detective fiction. As long time listeners will know, attitudes to highbrow vs lowbrow and where murder mysteries fit into that debate really interests me, and this feels like an intriguing part of that conversation from the mid 1920s. The Coles were a curiosity, a pair of very intelligent, very serious political thinkers who also enjoyed reading and writing lighthearted genre fiction. This apparent dichotomy actually did the status of the murder mystery a lot of good, Curtis says.

Curtis: The Coles were…in reviewers pieces on them, you know, they were always talking about how the Coles were this pair of intellectuals, highbrow types, and I think they did a lot to elevate the prestige of the detective novel at the time because they were lending their intellectual cachet to it.

Caroline: There’s a light, almost PG Wodehouse-esque tone to some of Douglas Cole’s early mysteries, precisely because he is writing them as a satire of a class and economic system that he views as rife with inequality and corruption. And for a long time, Curtis says, this aspect of their work has gone unappreciated.

Curtis: That’s something they haven’t gotten enough credit for in modern times, but I think that was a big part of the appeal to their books. Death of the Millionaire, as far as the mystery plot goes, it’s not my favourite, but the condemnation of English society is sweeping and just the implication that there’s all this corruption.

Caroline: These books aren’t political fantasies, either, in which the bad apples among the elites are weeded out at the end and everyone lives happily ever after in the status quo. The crime might be solved, but the oppressive structures that Cole has exposed remain. In The Death of a Millionaire, his detective, Superintendent Wilson, leaves Scotland Yard because he realises that he can’t single-handedly fix a broken system from within when the politicians in charge of it are fundamentally corrupt.

Curtis: Henry Wilson ends up resigning because Lord Ealing is still there. I think he becomes home secretary. Wilson knows he’s going to cover up all the crookedness that he’s uncovered, and so he decides just to quit. It’s kind of like a, “forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown” because he can’t beat the corruption in English society. He resigns and he becomes a private detective for the next several books.

Caroline: While the Coles’ overt political critiques drew attention to their detective fiction, the reaction was not always positive.

Curtis: Margaret Cole once said that she used to read reviewers criticising the Coles for bringing politics into their books. And she said ‘politics of the left is what they mean’. And her implication was that the status quo in the English detective novel was conservative and nobody ever noticed it, or most people didn’t notice it because it was just there, you know? And they were used to it.

Caroline: This is something that bears thinking about. So much of what we think of as the “classic” detective novel does draw on aspects of early 20th century life that were inherently conservative (with a small c) — the aristocracy and their vast untaxed wealth, for instance. Seen in this way, what is that staple of the golden age of detective fiction, the country house mystery, if not soft propaganda for the land-owning classes?

I’ll leave you to think about that for a moment, and we’ll discuss it more after the break.

Ad music

Caroline: In the 1970s, the critic Colin Watson published a book about detective fiction with the title “Snobbery With Violence” — a title that references the class biases inherent in a lot of golden age detective fiction. These are a lot of the time books about wealthy people doing expensive things who happen to encounter murder along the way. And that doesn’t mean that they aren’t entertaining or that we can’t enjoy them, of course we can. All the Coles were suggesting, I think, is that it’s worth being aware of what you are reading, and occasionally mixing in an alternative perspective.

Despite the not-always positive reception to the left-wing themes in his mysteries, Douglas Cole persevered with his project of showcasing a wider range of political opinion within the golden age detective novel. Here’s Curtis with some of the highlights from the late 1920s and 1930s.

Curtis: He had one in 1935 called Big Business Murder, which again as the title suggests, that’s another one looking at the corruption in English society, English business. There’s The Brothers Sackville, that’s one of my favourite ones by them. That brings in a lot of satire on religion. The Coles made religion a big target in their books. Whether it was like Evangelical Protestantism, or Douglas Cole liked to have these pompous bishops and take shots at them because of course, neither one of them was very sympathetic to religion.

Disgrace To The College, that’s another good one. He takes shots there at Oxford University Society. Double Blackmail, that’s another one because it’s another one with the pompous Bishop who’s being blackmailed. Murder at the Munition Works — that was written after World War II had started, and he brought in a real intensive look, probably too intensive for most people, at manufacturing during the war and changes that were having to be made in society as the government was so dependent on good relations with the workers to survive and had to make a lot of concessions. That one feels at times like it’s a treatise on labour-capital relations, you know, with the murder thrown in there.

Caroline: This was absolutely a shared project, too. Margaret Cole’s mysteries have some fascinating contemporary references to politics as well.

Curtis: She brings in topics like abortion, and she mentioned lesbianism. And one of the books Scandal at School was, uh, which is not really like about lesbianism, but it mentioned this. And that got banned several times in the 1950s in England, apparently. I’m assuming because of some of those mentions, the book was actually just taken out and destroyed. Burglars In Buck, that’s another good satirical one. That’s an epistolary novel, and she’ll bring in critiques of munitions manufacturers, people who got wealthy during World War I and the implication is corruptly.

And then in her later books, she gets interested in what’s going on in Europe and the refugee crisis. People are fleeing from Nazi Germany, leftist intellectuals like themselves and Jews. And of course that shows up in her books. Greek Tragedy, where Henry Wilson is off on a tour of Greece. And that gets very much into the political elements because there’s a Jewish businessmen and his daughter who are part of the touring party, they’re subjected to a lot of discrimination from these fascist types, English fascist sympathisers. Knife in the Dark, that gets into the refugee situation again, and prejudice against German refugees, Jewish refugees. She brings a contemporary, tragedy from the time what was the, the Arandora Star sinking where a bunch of enemy aliens from Germany and Italy were shipped to Canada. Churchill decided they had to be gotten out of the country and so they were sent to Canada on this ship there, the Arandora Star, which got torpedoed by the Germans, I think about 650 people died. That was a huge embarrassment for the government and she references that a lot. So there’s really all through their careers as detective writers, they bring in issues like that. So you get a very different perspective.

Caroline: At times, though, the Coles did take it a bit far, in the sense that their political ideas began to interfere with the mechanics of their plots.

Curtis: In the typical Golden Age detective novel, like a communist will be portrayed as some foaming-at-the-mouth nutcase is dirty and just throwing out revolutionary slogans, you know, it has nothing intelligent really to say, or it’ll be some naïve Oxford student or something like that. And so the Coles we’re trying to get beyond that, which some reviewers also said they carried it too far in some of their books because it’s a mystery, but you would know automatically that if a person’s left wing, they’re good. They’re not gonna be the murderer. And if the person’s very right wing, they’re going to have done something bad. So if, if you’re looking at it strictly as a mystery, that spoils some of the fun. Whereas, you’re looking at it, which I tend to do a lot. I mean, I’m a mystery fan. I write about these books, you know, as subjects of serious study. And so, uh, I love this stuff, you know, the social and political stuff they bring into it. But sometimes it is true that some of their books are more interesting in social documents than they are as mysteries. And so that’s something to keep in mind.

Caroline: The Coles were also in a minority among the initial wave of golden age detective authors, Curtis says, because they were vocally of the left.

Curtis: If you look at actual outright leftists among the golden age mystery writers, especially, this is more true of Britain than it is of the United States, there were not many out and out leftists. Most of them did tend to the, at least that I’m aware of, tend to the conservative view.

You had some liberals like E.R. Punshon, who’s been reprinted by Dean Street Press. He was another Detection Club member. By which I mean, you know, Liberal Party, but you also had the Coles and Christopher St. John Sprigg, who was an out and out Stalinist who probably would’ve supported purging the Coles, you know, as being too insufficiently left. He was killed in Spain, fighting the fascists. Nicholas Blake, the poet, C. Day-Lewis became another Detection Club member in the thirties. He had leftist views, so there were a few, you know, but the Coles were the ones who really put it out there in their books.

Caroline: It it didn’t necessarily make them popular with their fellow Detection Club members either. Dorothy L. Sayers, reviewing one of their books in the Sunday Times, described the satire as “coarse” and said that one needed to have some element of love for bishops and lords in order to be able to satirise them really well. I’m sure the Coles had a good laugh over the idea that they needed to respect these figures more, but it is also true that they had more in common with the likes of Christie, Sayers, Dickson Carr and so on than they would have, perhaps, liked to admit. The Coles were part of the intellectual establishment and enjoyed all the privileges — such as houses and servants — that that brought. Douglas was a professor at Oxford University and Margaret was later made a Dame of the British Empire. Just like their detective Henry Wilson calling out corruption in the police while also working at Scotland Yard, they were part of the same system they critiqued.

Now let’s address something a bit confusing about all this. I said at the start that all these mysteries, with the exception of the very first one, The Brooklyn Murders, were credited to GDH and Margaret Cole. Yet all the time we’ve been talking, Curtis and I have both been referring to “Douglas’s books” or “Margaret’s books”. How can that be, when both of their names were on almost all of them? Well, it was a joint enterprise, but it seems that they didn’t really collaborate on every chapter.

Curtis: They wrote theirs book separately and one spouse would look it over, you know, that kind of thing and make suggestions. But essentially they’re really solo books, even though they put their names to each book. There were 28 Coles detective novels, and I think he wrote 18 and she wrote 10 of them.

Caroline: There are examples of golden age duos who wrote more closely together, such as Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson, or Pamela Hansford Johnson and Neil Gordon Stewart. But while the Coles were happy to share a collective brand name, as it were, they preferred to write alone and then edit each other’s work. Which is how, after his research, Curtis has been able to identify with some accuracy which of them originated each story.

Finally, as is so often the case when I cover less well known authors on the show, I feel we need to look into the question of where the Coles went. Given their productivity and popularity during the golden age itself, why did their work disappear from view when others’ survived? And why is it still so hard to get hold of affordable copies?

The answer to the first question is the same as for other writers, like Sayers and Anthony Berkeley: simply, the second world war and all the change that it brought.

Curtis: They wrote between 1923 and 1943, they published the novels and a few things, stray things, novellas, short stories came out up through about 1945 or 46 and after that, they just kind of dropped it. There was World War II, of course, and all the postwar events going on and Labour was coming to power. There was so much going on in the world, you know, and they felt like they were really involved in things in a new way. And so they just, the detective fiction just kind of fell away. The vogue for classic detective fiction, it kind of wore out for some people. I mean, Margaret Cole just basically said the last one she was writing on and she just stopped halfway through because she got bored, and she never got back to it.

Caroline: Britain elected a Labour government in 1945 and the Coles were no longer fringe leftist intellectuals, but thinkers close to those in power. Detective fiction had always been a side project for them, something they enjoyed because it didn’t require the intensive research of their other writing, and because it did pay well. Once the golden age mystery was no longer quite the popular cultural force it had once been, they were happy to move on to other things.

As to why their books have not survived in print as well as some of their contemporaries, there are a few different forces at play. The political and social commentary aspects of their books mean that they read very much of their time — if you’re interested in what it was like to be a munitions worker in the early 1940s, say, then they’re great, but that probably isn’t the approach of every casual mystery reader. Their references dated quickly in comparison with the more universal and intuitive stories of, say, Agatha Christie. Then there’s also the larger issue of how the narrative around the golden age was written once it was over, Curtis says. The “crime queens”, like Christie, Sayers, Allingham, Marsh, Tey, came to dominate as people looked back on those interwar years, even if that wasn’t how it had seemed at the time.

Curtis: By the time you got to the forties and fifties, Penguin famously, their green and white paperbacks, you know, they reprinted all these titles. I think 10 titles each by Christie and and Marsh. They just became kind of canonised, you know, and everybody just kind of associated with the crime queens. I mean, if you look at books that were being written about the Golden Age, even 10 years ago, that’s the focus.

Caroline: And then there’s just the prosaic, practical reason that the copyright to the Coles’ books has been hard to track down, so reprinting them hasn’t been an attractive project so far. Hopefully that will change soon, and we will no longer have to scour secondhand bookshops or hope to get lucky in the library in order to sample more of their work without spending vast sums on collectible editions. Reading their work has brought a greater depth to my understanding of the golden age of detective fiction, and I hope it will for you, too.


This episode of Shedunnit was hosted by me, Caroline Crampton. Thanks to my guest Curtis Evans — you can find more information about his work and his books in the description for this episode or at I publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at

If you enjoyed this episode and you’d like to hear more from me beyond the fortnightly episodes on this feed, join the Shedunnit Book Club, where I make extra bonus episodes every month for supporters. Find out more and sign up now at

Shedunnit is edited by Euan McAleece. Production assistance from Leandra Griffith. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin.

Thanks for listening.

Sorry, comments are closed for this post.