Corpse in Canonicals (G. D. H. & M Cole)

By G. D. H. and M. Cole

First published: UK, Collins, November 1930; US, Morrow, 1931, as Corpse in the Constable’s Garden.  Reprinted under this title in the UK, Collins 1933.

Blurb (UK)

Coles - Corpse in Canonicals.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

Superintendent Wilson thought he was in a cul de sac!  Having been called to Middlebury to investigate the disappearance of Elinor Symonds’s necklace, he arrives only to find that it had been returned as mysteriously as it went.  He goes back to Scotland Yard, but in a few days he sees that his cul de sac is rather an avenue leading to one of the most amazing murders in his career.  The body of a clergyman is found in the garden of the Chief Constable’s house, and the police are faced not with the problem of finding a clue, so much as with finding the right clue out of the many provided—a revolver with all its chambers full, a small bottle of poison, a chloroform-soaked handkerchief, a cigar stump and a visiting card!  Corpse in Canonicals is a most ingenious piece of crime fiction with that grip on the reader that ingenuity of plot alone cannot produce.

My review

The statement on the blurb that it has a “grip on the reader that ingenuity of plot alone cannot produce” is fortunately true, for, considered purely as a detective story, this is rather weak stuff. The murder of the Reverend Leconfield Barrington, apparently by the explorer Matthew Boulton, and the discovery of his corpse in the Chief Constable’s garden surrounded by a number of false clues, is one of the stock situations of the 1920s detective story, and suggests that, like The Death of a Millionaire or The Man from the River, the authors’ two best works, this is a spoof on the detective story – an impression confirmed by the presence of a detective novelist of the Wallace variety who comes under suspicion due to the strong similarity between one of his books and the actual murder and helps in the detection and commenting on the action from the perspective of his fiction.  Unfortunately the plot is rather hard to swallow. The reader knows long before Wilson that SPOILER Barrington and Boulton are the same person, and can name the murderer from the end of Part III (halfway through) – not hard when the murderer’s alias is Stephen Smith and the initials of one of the characters is also “SS”. It is difficult to buy the reason given for the murderer planting clues leading to Boulton, in order to lay a false trail to a missing scapegoat. Since the Boulton connection wouldn’t have appeared otherwise, the planting of the clues looks rather like an authorial forcing of the detection, as though the Coles couldn’t think of another way to get Wilson on the track and so resorted to clever trickery (a detective fiction gambit) rather than human probability and naturalistic characterisation. This is a pity, as the spoon-feeding of Wilson makes it rather hard to treat him seriously as a detective or to believe in the extensive following-up of leads. Once something is too easy for the main character, it tends to spoil the rest of the story.

Contemporary reviews

New Statesman (29th November 1930):

It would be a pity if readers were deterred from reading what is perhaps the most ingenious of Mr. and Mrs. Cole’s detective stories, by the unfortunate flippancies of its opening chapters.  After all, The Corpse in Canonicals is in form not a fantasy but a story of actual life; and in actual life no village policeman would exclaim, on finding a dead clergyman in a garden, “Lord save us, it’s a bleedin’ parson”.  The murdered man was a rogue whose death enabled Superintendent Wilson to get to the bottom of a great many undiscovered crimes.  The story moves swiftly and with variety; our only complaint against its progress is that there are rather too many supers—one undergraduate would have been quite enough.


Times Literary Supplement (11th December 1930):

Mr. and Mrs. Cole’s present mystery works out with the ease and certainty that comes from long practice.  Yet it is not more mechanical than such stories should be, and the plot is not less plausible than precise.  We are led into the maze by two entrances, the theft of a necklace, which is soon returned in as mysterious a manner as it was stolen, and the murder of a clergyman in the same neighbourhood, whose corpse was provided with an unnatural number of clues.  The gradual connexion of the two events is managed very subtly, and it is obvious that such ingenious connexions of apparently disconnected events are needed to give a new life to the character of detective stories.  Superintendent Wilson is exactly the same character that he has always been and works in exactly the same way, never concealing too much from his opponent, the reader, or giving too much away.  The stock figures of the detective story, from the chief constable to the country policemen, are all here, but the clergymen, of whom there are several, do provide some new interest in the way of character.  Mr. and Mrs. Cole seem entirely to have abandoned that social satire which sometimes enlivened their earlier detective stories, but they have not lost all interest in character apart from plot, though the growing efficiency and complication of the plots is obviously tending to drive out everything else.


Spectator (13th December 1930):

Mr. and Mrs. Cole’s new detective story is extremely disappointing—at least this reviewer guessed both the mysteries as soon as they came into existence.  We have learnt to expect so much from Mr. and Mrs. Cole that it is more than usually disappointing to find a detective story from their pen, the writing of which they can’t have taken very seriously.


Books (Will Cuppy, 22nd March 1931, 120w):

The always readable and amusing Coles have stirred up another Grade A item…  Here’s a good story gracefully told.


Bookm (May 1931, 100w):

The Coles have again scored with a delightful plot and well-turned execution.


Boston Transcript (23rd May 1931, 180w):

A studious, well-written and carefully planned story, The Corpse in the Constable’s Garden will please the most fastidious devotee of mystery stories.