Dead Man’s Watch (G.D.H. and M. Cole)

By G.D.H. and M. Cole

First published: UK, Collins, September 1931; US, Doubleday, 1932

Blurb (UK)

Coles - Dead Man's Watch.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

Few of us would care to share the experience of Ronald Bittaford, who, when on holiday with his fiancée, found in a creek the drowned body of his uncle, whom he had not seen for a year and a half.  And yet—was it his uncle, or his uncle’s brother, or an unknown stranger from Teignmouth?  And how had he come to be there?  Was he drowned, or strangled? and by whom?  These, and other questions, together make one of the prettiest problems ever set before the great Superintendent Wilson; but in the end, with the aid of a watch, a boarding-house, a street betting-tout, and the congregation of a strange dissenting chapel, he brings it to a triumphant conclusion.  Dead Man’s Watch is one of the most amusing and vigorous tales which Mr. and Mrs. Cole have given us.

My review

Coles - Dead Man's Watch US.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

An amusing and lively period piece reminiscent of contemporary Christie, and showing the Coles at their best. The story opens in Devonshire, where Ronald Bittaford finds the dead body of his uncle in a creek on Sir Charles Wylie’s property, his beard shaved off after death. It soon transpires that Percy had died of cancer at Sands-on-Sea, and that the posthumously shaved corpse is that of Bittaford’s brother from Australia, Harold (shades of Conan Doyle!). With the Devonshire police under a preposterous Chief Constable attempting to pass the death off as accident (for the police don’t like murder) and Ronald arrested for murder, it falls to the amusing drunkard Wylie and Ronald’s fiancée Dolly Daniells to clear his name and solve the case. Much of the work is done by Wylie, who sacrifices his personal comfort in order to dig out the truth at Sands-on-Sea, while Dolly endures the constant praying of the wonderfully dotty cult to which Percy belonged. It is, of course, Wilson who applies the finishing touches to the case, revealing a complicated and ingenious insurance scam (similar to Austin Freeman’s D’Arblay Mystery). The pace is exactly right: the reader and Wilson work at the same speed, neither too fast nor too slow, giving the reader the chance to work out many (but not all) the details. Highly satisfying.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (14th January 1932):

A good deal turns on the fact that the corpse’s chin had been amateurishly shaved, apparently after death, and it was Dolly Daniells who drew the baronet’s attention to it after looking at the unlovely object washed up on the shore of his creek in Devon.  She had been trapesing about the country with the dead man’s nephew, who is so upset by seeing the body that it becomes likely that he will have to be certified, even if he escapes sentence, for the local police, unable to account plausibly in any other way for the presence of the corpse, go so far as to arrest the poor boy as a possible murderer.  The authors, apart from the mystery and the unravelling of it, put a good deal into their story, and take such pains with their characters that the reader will get quite interested, for his own sake, in the harum-scarum young baronet, bibulous, bright, dyspeptic and “possessed of the temperament rather of a gossip-writer than of a research worker”, who puts the necessary backbone into the investigation.  Then there is Dolly, the cockney girl, who will be thrown away on the feckless, at most feeble-minded nephew on whose behalf she is so observant; Mrs. Bittaford, kind-hearted and a good cook, who weeps as much as Hecuba; Mr. Dawes, the Pentecostal Hopper with the fine voice and the gift for prayer, who sends the dead man’s watch to be cleaned; and several minor characters.


Spectator (16th January 1932):

An involved and rather conventional story of murder, centred in the likeness between two brothers.  Well written, with a welcome savouring of humour.


NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 15th May 1932, 200w):

Any mystery story by the Coles is sure to be worth while, and this is one of their best.


Books (Will Cuppy, 22nd May 1932, 230w):

As ever, the Coles pursue the main miscreant with due respect for logic in all its branches.  For readers in their right minds, or thereabouts.