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.