The Affair at Aliquid (G.D.H. and M. Cole)

I bought the only copy of this for sale in the world last month. It’s a pity a book so unobtainable is so entertaining.

Briefly, David Rogers, a young rogue, gets into hot water. He writes to the philanthropist Duke of Aliquid, who mistakes him for an African missionary, and invites him to stay at the castle, an architectural monstrosity in the wilds of Scotland. David frantically improvises, dancing from one crisis to another, trying to stay one ahead of his hosts.

This may well be one of the funniest books published under the Crime Club banner; I read it in fits of laughter. Just don’t expect a detective story. As Dorothy L. Sayers haughtily remarked, it had no proper business in the Crime Club list.

Oh, there’s crime in plenty: burglary, impostors, theft (of a clergyman’s trousers, and later of Lady Snodgrass’s jewels), blackmail, deceit, indecent exposure, and more. But they’re incidental. Its closest cousins, perhaps, are Michael Innes’s non-murderous country house farces, in which the author gathers amiable rogues and eccentrics under his roof, and lets them talk at each other in the best Peacockian / Huxleyan manner.

The Coles – as in The Blatchington Tangle and Burglars in Bucks – poke genial fun at the aristocracy and the clergy, particularly the latter. There’s a fat bishop with an eye and a paw for pretty girls, a Freud-fixated spinster with some refreshing views on the Bible, and a delicious joke about missionaries, cannibals, and performing the last rites. (Being eaten is probably the best thing for missionaries.)

Sayers took umbrage. “Here we have a Wodehousian comedy of errors about crooks in a ducal mansion, but without the heaven-born gifts of tact and style.  The mirth is coarse and commonplace, the satire clumsy and brutal.  One must both know and love these bishops, butlers, and noblemen if one’s caricature of their foibles is to be anything more than an ill-bred grin through a horse-collar.”

Perhaps the determination to psychoanalyse the Old Testament, calling Holy Communion a barbarous survival, jokes about bigamous vicars (“a lamentable case of extraverted auto-eroticism”), and the repressed desires and hormones of clergymen was too much for Sayers. She began with Lord Peter, but deserted him for the Lord.

But the good lady was wrong about Aliquid. If you’re lucky enough to find a copy, read it and enjoy.


1933 Collins

David Rogers, after failing rapidly and romantically in several enterprises more adventurous than sound, secures—by false pretences be it whispered—an invitation to stay with the Duke of Aliquid at Aliquid Castle in the West Highlands.  He arrives in the guise of an African missionary and is soon involved in a mysterious jewel robbery, for soon after his arrival Lady Snodgrass is robbed, a case that causes much consternation to the local police in the person of Inspector Bulkhead.  The Affair at Aliquid may rightly be claimed to be the greatest mystery story of the year.  G.D.H. & M. Cole possess just the right touch for their theme.  Not since they wrote Burglars in Bucks have these delightful collaborators written so entertaining a book.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (29th June 1933): Though “recommended” by the Crime Club, this book has very little to do with crime.  Penniless David Rogers, mistaken by the philanthropic Duke of Aliquid for an eminent missionary of the same name, does, it is true, purloin the best suit of the local rector to carry through the unwitting deception; but Mr. and Mrs. Cole are less concerned with that crime and with the incidental theft of Lady Snodgrass’s imitation jewels than with the humour of David’s innocent impersonation.  This is a most amusing tale of a heterogeneous house-party in Scotland; of young people, “modern” in their views and actions as well as in their choice of expressions; and of impossible—if impossibly funny—misunderstandings.

Sunday Times (Dorothy L. Sayers, 11th September 1933): In The Affair at Aliquid, Mr. and Mrs. Cole have been perilously inspired to re-write an old farce—the one about the seedy adventurer who masquerades as a parson.  Now, to write that story and get away with it is an infinitely more difficult and delicate task than the construction of sociological outlines, because the smallest error of taste is fatal.  Charlie Chaplin himself did not succeed perfectly.  There is only one man living who can do this kind of thing without tedium and without offence, and that is Mr. P.G. Wodehouse.  His exquisite rapier is a more formidable weapon than the bow of Ulysses, and to challenge him on his own ground is to invite disaster.

Here we have a Wodehousian comedy of errors about crooks in a ducal mansion, but without the heaven-born gifts of tact and style.  The mirth is coarse and commonplace, the satire clumsy and brutal.  One must both know and love these bishops, butlers, and noblemen if one’s caricature of their foibles is to be anything more than an ill-bred grin through a horse-collar.  The Coles have given us some first-class mystery stories, but this is not one of them, and has, indeed, no proper business in the Crime Club list.  It is just one of those unfortunate mistakes.  “They should have wiped it up,” said my Uncle Toby, “and said no more about it.”

New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 14th October 1933): The Affair at Aliquid deserves to come last.  The Coles can write detective stories, but they cannot write like P.G. Wodehouse.  Yet this book appears with the Crime Club cover, and purports therefore to deal with crime.  That may be one of the jokes, or even the crime itself, which I otherwise missed.  The intention of the book is to give a rollicking account of Bohemians rubbing shoulders with a Duke by entering the Castle in disguise.  There is no plot, only a succession of funny incidents, such as stealing a clergyman’s trousers.  The Coles should try writing for Punch.

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5 thoughts on “The Affair at Aliquid (G.D.H. and M. Cole)

  1. Interesting review! Sounds like the tone got under a couple contemporary collars, which makes it intriguing. I haven’t read any Coles and I don’t own any of their books, but I’ll poke around my college interlibrary loan to see what I can sample. Congrats on finding a copy — Jason

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was nice to find a copy! It was of a price I normally reserve for Gladys Mitchell; I debated whether it was worth buying – but in the end, it was.

      Let me know what you Coles you mine.


  2. Thanks Nick for linking up my post. I hadn’t read Sayers’ review of the book so was glad to read it here. I enjoyed the book and found their Toper’s End even funnier. Have you read that?


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