Partners in crime: labour historians in the Golden Age of detective fiction

Typically set in a sprawling country house and populated by a cast drawn from the landed gentry and the well-to-do, ‘Golden Age’ detective fiction is not the most obvious genre in which to find two of the country’s leading socialist intellectuals. 

The Man from the River: the fourth of the Coles’ works of detective fiction, first published by Collins in 1928.

This was a world in which money, privilege and titles were taken for granted, servants were ever-present but hardly central to the plot, and the tidal wave of murders that apparently swept through the upper reaches of society in the 1920s and 1930s (at least in fiction) was seldom considered grounds to abandon formal dinner dress or cancel a weekend shooting party.

Yet among the more accomplished and best-selling authors of this massively popular publishing phenomenon were those two pioneers of labour history (and active participants in the socialist politics of their day) G.D.H. (Douglas) and Margaret Cole, whose 28 detective fiction novels and four collections of short stories helped the publisher Collins achieve such success with its Crime Club imprint.

To some extent, the Coles would have had first-hand experience of the gilded upper class lifestyle. Both came from well-off if hardly aristocratic backgrounds, and money was never a problem. By the time their first detective story appeared, Douglas was Reader in economics at University College, Oxford, and both were leading members of the Fabian Society, where they enjoyed the patronage of Sidney and Beatrice Webb.

But neither was theirs a typical story of wealth and privilege. Douglas and Margaret, then Postgate, met during the first world war in the campaign against conscription. And both developed links with the labour movement, Douglas as an advisor to the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, and Margaret with the Fabian Research Department (later the Labour Research Department). During the 1920s and 1930s, Douglas would develop his theories of guild socialism, and both singly and together, the two would write prolifically on the economics and politics of the period, often for the Left Book Club, becoming widely known through their series of Intelligent Man’s Guides.

The Coles fell into fiction almost by accident. Margaret Cole would later write: ‘My husband had an illness and was ordered off all work. But he said writing detective stories wasn’t work, and so he wrote one… I believe I jeered at him a bit, and said he wouldn’t be able to finish anything so frivolous as a novel; and that may have helped him to get along. Anyway, he did; he wrote the Brooklyn Murders, and since then we have aways written our novels together.’

She explained that, having settled on a plot, one or other of them would write a first draft. ‘Then the fun begins. My husband – if it’s I who’ve written the draft – says, “Look here, this and this won’t do, you know; you’ve made the man be in two places four hundred miles apart at the same time; you’ve made him travel by Underground at three in the morning; and really the murderer’s wife is an impossible character.” Then I say, “Well, if you feel like that there’s no use going on; in fact, I might as well throw it into the fire at once.” And so on. Well, after a bit of discussion of this kind we calm down, and discover that if Chapters X and XII are altered and a few other changes made it will pass. And so it’s altered, and eventually turns up as a book, all in proper form.’

There is a critical consensus, then and now, that the Cole’s early novels as joint authors, from 1925 onwards, were their strongest. Their first book together, Death of a Millionaire, has been described as ‘one of the half dozen best detective novels of the 1920s’. Featuring the disappearance of an American millionaire, a sinister Russian, and highly suspicious former Home Secretary, the book uses satire to show the effect of the murder on the money markets, and puts big business and social mores under the spotlight in what is, by all accounts, a humorous and tightly written story.

The story also introduces Inspector Wilson, the Scotland Yard detective who would be the mainstay of most of the Coles’ crime stories. Though sometimes criticised as a dull and undistinguished character, Margaret Cole would insist that this was deliberate, explaining in an invented conversation with the fictional Wilson: ‘We want the main interest of our stories to be in the stories themselves, and in the people and their relations, one with another. We want you to be the right sort of person for unravelling the mystery; and the less you get in the way when you aren’t wanted for that purpose the better we shall be pleased.’

The Coles continued to write detective fiction alongside popular and academic works on economics, politics and history until well into the 1940s. Along with a substantial readership in the UK, they also found popularity in the United States and their novels were translated for publication in France.

The Coles’ contribution to detective fiction is today well known among fans of the Golden Era. But their contribution to the labour movement and to labour history was to be far more significant – even if they are little remembered today. Douglas Cole made important contributions to the development of co-operative political theory, and numbered among his students both Hugh Gaitskell and Harold Wilson. After his death in 1959, Margaret Cole ensured that his extensive notes on labour movement activists were passed on to John Saville, who used them as the basis for the early volumes of the Dictionary of Labour Biography. She also continued to work on aspects of labour history, publishing The Story of Fabian Socialism in 1961, and a bracingly honest biography of her husband a decade later.

Margaret would herself become influential in the early days of the Society for the Study of Labour History, never holding office but always there. Following her death in 1980, Saville noted that she was to be seen in the front row of most of the Society’s London meetings, and that to within a year of her death, ‘Her sharply written letters correcting interpretations of the past or errors of fact were well known.’

Portrait of the authors: a woman with dark hair looks to the camera, a cigarette held elegantly in her left hand. She is standing by a table at which a man in a 1930s suit is seated with a pen in his hand. They are in a well furnished living room with large window behind them. The main image also includes a montage of 1920s and 1930s crime book covers.
Cover stories: Margaret and Douglas (G.D.H) Cole at home.

Further reading

GDH and M Cole: Meet Superintendent Wilson, on the Classic Crime Fiction blog, but originally from Cecil Madden (ed.) Meet the Detective London: George Allen & Unwin, 1935.

Nick Fuller The Death of a Millionaire review on gadetection.

Jose Ignacio Escribano G.D.H. and Margaret Cole (1889–1959 and 1893–1980, respectively) on the A Crime is Afoot blog.

Dame Margaret Cole, The Life of G.D.H. Cole, London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1971.

John Saville, In Memoriam, Labour History Review (1980), 41, (1), 10-12. Liverpool University Press.