The Death of a Millionaire (G.D.H. and Margaret Cole)

By G.D.H. and M. Cole

First published: UK, Collins, 1925; USA, Macmillan, 1925

The Coles’ masterpiece, and one of the half-dozen best detective novels of the 1920s. Although the plot concerns the disappearance of an American millionaire from one of the most exclusive hotels in London, the wanderings of a sinister Russian with a trunk, and the suspicious behaviour of a former Home Secretary, it is worth reading for reasons other than the detective interest, the pleasure in following an extremely complex and logical plot, and the Chestertonian solution (SPOILER a minor crime disguised as a major one, rather than the other way round). The Coles’ satire is at its best, as they show the effects of the murder on the financial market, and, by extension, on all walks of life—one is inescapably reminded of Dickens, particularly Martin Chuzzlewit or Our Mutual Friend. Politics, big business and social mores are all examined with a witty and ironic eye, and the humour is spot-on (unlike, for instance, the more heavy-handed Big Business Murder or Greek Tragedy). The book moves slowly, but of necessity, for there is a great deal going on, a great variety in place and mood (London, Normandy and the steppes of Siberia all feature prominently), yet the whole feels remarkably tight and coherent. There can be no doubt that this is the work of two highly intelligent minds, and that the book is to be savoured, read slowly and carefully, as befits any work of GENIUS.

Blurb (UK)

Hugh Radlett was one of the richest men in the United States.  After a breach with his wife he disappeared, and was heard nothing of for several years.  Then he turned up again in London, coming from Russia, where, with his partner, John Pasquett, he had fixed up a great mining commission with the Soviet Government.  The morning after his arrival his suite at the hotel is found in disorder, with all the signs of a violent struggle.  An eye-witness, discovered under curious circumstances, deposes to having seen the murderer and Radlett’s dead body.  But the body cannot be found, and the man suspected of the crime, a Russian named Rosenbaum, has left before the discovery with a heavy trunk.  How did Hugh Radlett die, and what has become of his body?  That is the problem Mr. Cole sets his reader to solve.  The unravelling of the mystery leads the reader a fine dance, and introduces him to a number of interesting characters – from Lord Ealing, the great financier politician, to Norah Culpepper, a girl with a nerve as well as an attractive personality.  But the story is dominated by the character of Jack Pasquett, the dead man’s partner.  Not till the very end will any save the most discerning reader get to the bottom of Mr. Cole’s baffling and ingenious plot.

Blurb (US)

Here is a detective story with a difference—the murderer and his victim are apparently the same person, the reader’s sympathy is strongly engaged on the side of the chief lawbreaker, and the novel abounds in humour.  Gold-mining in Russia, stock-jobbing in England, hunting Bolsheviks in London—all these enter into this highly satisfactory and entertaining story.

As the dare-devil Canadian, Pasquett, says at the end, “It was a very pretty murder, however you look at it, and all the prettier for being”—but we must not give the point away.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (19th March 1925):

The authors have written an entertaining story about mystery and high finance, bloodstains, a missing body, Bolshevists, and policemen, both clever and foolish.  They have so contrived the plot that it resembles as it were an onion; and as every skin is peeled off there is an ever more mysterious development, the earlier problems become more tangled and complicated, and the financiers sink ever deeper into a sea of lies, impostures, forgeries and other roguery.  There is personation and a hint of smuggling; the characters flit by aeroplane upon their various errands; alibis are laboriously constructed and painstakingly demolished; Soviet prisons are broken; felonies are compounded and a Right Honourable member of the Opposition, a Prince of Finance, can only save himself from ruinous exposure by again becoming Home Secretary so as to recover control of the sleuth-hounds of Scotland Yard, who are hot upon his heels.  Mr. Cole must have enjoyed himself very much in writing this clever story, with its delicate savour of satire, of the peccadilloes of political financiers and financial politicians, of the laborious and sometimes uninspired activities of the Special Branch at Scotland Yard, of Communists who are ready to massacre at large but shun retail murder as indelicate, and of the disappointments of detectives.

New Statesman (14th March 1925, 420w):

The Death of a Millionaire is one of the best detective stories we have read for years.

Sat R (Gerald Gould, 14th March 1925, 450w):

Mr. and Mrs. Cole write, not merely well, but with distinction and humour.  The Death of a Millionaire is elaborate and ingenious, and, though there is small attempt at characterisation except in one instance, I suppose the book could scarcely be very much better of its kind.

Nation and Ath (Edwin Muir, 28th March 1925, 50w):

It is a very good detective story.  But it would have been still better if fresh ingredients had not been thrown in half way through.

Living Age (20th June 1925, 350w):

Very skilfully have Mr. and Mrs. Cole entangled their threads, and very skilfully do they unravel them, in a story swiftly carried along by action and dialogue.  Perhaps the most brilliant thing they do is to throw a little light from the angle of the left on Big Business and other matters of interest to us—and this without impairing in the least the narrative charms of a most entertaining story.

NY Tribune (11th October 1925, 180w):

No detective story could wish for more loving care and consideration than G.D.H. and Margaret Cole have expended upon their brain-child.  The humorous attitude maintained by the Coles toward the agitations they have summoned up adds still another charm to their really entertaining yarn.

Lit R (C.P. Sawyer, 17th October 1925, 120w):

A clever story is presented deftly, interesting to the very end, although there isn’t a ‘shocker’ in it.  Trails are covered and uncovered in a most workmanlike manner and the culprit and his pursuers use the most modern methods of flight.  It is a capital yarn.

Outlook (18th November 1925, 250w):

A tale no more improbable than the conventions permit, and well told.