Poison in the Garden Suburb (G.D.H. and Margaret Cole)

By G.D.H. and Margaret Cole

First published: UK, Collins, 1928; US, Payson & Clarke, as Poison in a Garden Suburb

Although I was very impressed by the book when I read it in September 1999, it is a pity to write that the book doesn’t live up to memory. Although by no means a bad book (and quite a good one in a lot of ways), it is easily the authors’ weakest book of the 1920s. Their characterisation is probably the best thing about the book, recalling Simenon or Ruth Rendell’s fascination with the bourgeoisie. We see young doctors and deluded lovers trying to survive while prosperous doctors and social workers make pretentious spectacles of themselves, and we see the men of the suburb of Medstead drawn to the beautiful yet utterly vacuous Mrs. Cayley (widow of the little man poisoned with strychnine at the literary institute) like moths to the flame, burnt up and dying without satisfaction. As a detective story it is extremely average, as there is little complexity or ingenuity. The middle section treads water, going over what we already know, resulting in a feeling of hollowness and inconsequentiality; the murderer is apparently something of an after-thought, as his few appearances before the melodramatic dénouement (girl kidnapped and put in cellar by false-whiskered fiend) have not given any indication of villainy at all (and the handwriting clue isn’t really fair); and the only good idea is the murderer’s theft of the strychnine to cover his tracks.

Blurb (UK)

Our expectations of a really first class detective yarn in Poison in the Garden Suburb is amply justified when we remember that it has come from the same pen, or rather pens, as The Blatchington Tangle and The Murder at Crome House.  G. D. H. & M. COLE, who have already delighted thousands of readers with their absorbing and thrilling crime stories, are sure to gain many more devotees with this ingenious detective novel.  The highly respectable atmosphere of the Garden Suburb Literary Institute is electrified by the sudden death by poison of one of its prominent members.  Meanwhile the audience is requested to remain until each one has been questioned by the police.  Here is a novel and exciting opening to a detective story which you will find impossible to stop reading until you have probed the mystery to its depths.

Blurb (US)

Superintendent Wilson is at his best in this fascinating and completely baffling story of sudden death in a quiet London suburb.  The victim’s murder occurs in a manner likely to deceive even the keenest reader of detective fiction, and the unravelling of crime is as ingenious and teasingly exact as a chess-master’s attack.

At the very outset the spotlight of suspicion focuses itself upon the young doctor whose strange actions during the hour of murder single him out from a score of suspects; but at length, under Superintendent Wilson’s uncanny guidance, the colder light of logic wheels in a wide and fateful circle across their defiant or frightened faces, to rest with a sudden blaze of truth upon the real murderer.

The Coles have always provided excellent entertainment with these adventures of Wilson in the dark lanes of crime; and in a market flooded with conventional thrillers, where false clues are laid for the unwary reader, they stand out among the very best of their kind.

Contemporary reviews

New Statesman (13th July 1929):

Mr. and Mrs. Cole have written another good book.  Year by year they are developing and improving their technique in the art of writing detective stories.  Their latest book is perhaps their best.  It includes a recognisable portrait of a public, or semi-public, character, but its chief interest lies in the ingenuity of the crime itself and the series of almost accidental revelations by which the crime is discovered.  To readers of this type of popular fiction it can be recommended with the utmost confidence.  This is an odd form of the literary art, but it holds so great financial possibilities that it is certain to be pursued and developed, and there are no writers who are working quite so steadily and intelligently at its development as Mr. and Mrs. Cole.  We may pretty confidently expect that each of their books will be better than the last.

Times Literary Supplement (18th July 1929):

In the title they have selected there is an agreeable suggestion that the detective story is regarded by Mr. and Mrs. Cole as a light entertainment, and this is confirmed by their chapter headings:—“The Characters in the Order of their Appearance”; “First Policeman”; “First Murderer?”; “Second Murderer?”; “Star’s Entrance”.  The first of these is specially to be commended—it enables the reader to reconsider his suspicions with the minimum of trouble at the frequent intervals prescribed by the character of the entertainment.  But the authors while they not aspiring to wring heartstrings avoid the opposite error of appearing too proud for the job they have undertaken.  They have performed it in a workmanlike way, and as if they enjoyed it—not as if they were saying “the taste for these trivialities is yours not ours”.  The developments interest them; and, so far as the exigencies of poisoning permit, their people act and speak naturally and so as to hold attention.  There is, for instance, the clever young man infatuated with a handsome dull woman.  “Talk!” said Martin.  “We never talked, to speak of.  We hadn’t anything to talk about.”  And he is sure of sympathy when he bursts out: “I’ll swear I didn’t kill Cayley, if that’s any good.  But that’s about the only thing I didn’t do.”

Spectator (28th September 1929):

Mr. and Mrs. Cole’s new detective story is disappointing.  A bewildering number of characters appear in it, and we feel that so many of them are suspicious that the reader’s attempt at detection is futile.  This is not flattering, and surely the appeal of detective stories is that the reader hopes to flatter himself by solving the problem before him.  There is good material in this book—but too much of it.  Perhaps this is due to the serial form in which Poison in the Garden Suburb first appeared.  The general reader, who does not consider himself an expert in this kind of story, will no doubt enjoy immensely Mr. and Mrs. Cole’s upheaval in the garden suburb.

Books (NY Herald Tribune) (Will Cuppy, 6th October 1929, 150w):

A Grade A toxicological item by two of the best bafflers in the business.

NY Times (20th October 1929, 180w):

The case presents some interesting problems, which are, of course, eventually solved by Wilson, but the chief interest in the story lies in the character involved.  Particularly well drawn is the out-spoken spinster, Miss Lydia Redford, who unfortunately drops out of sight when the story is about half done.