G. D. H. & MARGARET COLE – Knife in the Dark.

Collins Crime Club, UK, hardcover; Dec 1941. The Macmillan Co., US, hardcover, 1942 (shown).

GDH & M COLE Knife in the Dark

   More than usual, there are a couple of remarkable aspects to this wartime mystery. The first is the identity of the primary sleuth, and it is definitely not private detective James Warrender, as I carelessly (and rather chauvinistically) assumed when I picked the book up to read. Unh-uh. Not at all. It’s Mrs. Elizabeth Warrender instead. His mother.

   Belatedly checking with Hubin’s Crime Fiction IV, I found that this was the only full length novel in which Mrs. Warrender was in. Altogether the Coles wrote more than thirty mysteries, and the detective in most of them was Scotland Yard’s Superintendent Wilson. While James Warrender’s mother appeared in an earlier collection of novelettes and short stories called Mrs. Warrender’s Profession, 1939, this was the only novel.

   Someone else will have to tell me, because I can’t come up with any — what other private eye character ever found himself upstaged in a detective story by his mother?

   The other aspect that I found remarkable — and so, therefore, I’m obliged to remark on it, aren’t I? — was the identity of the murder victim. Up until her death, I thought she had the most vibrant, most interesting personality of anyone else in the book, and it was difficult to see her go.

   Not that she was without faults. Check the date of the novel again. As the wife of a dull academic in a university town, the woman was well known for her intolerance and for speaking out against the aliens being resettled in the city — refugees from a Europe suffering from a war we here in which the United States had not yet become involved. The lady was also a bright flame in the town’s small community of scholars, drawing unattached students to her like the proverbial moths, not to mention the occasional faculty member.

   She, in fact, is at one point described in a word I doubt that Agatha Christie ever used, a nymphomaniac. (Erle Stanley Gardner might have called this book The Case of the Unscrupulous Siren.)

   The murder takes place at a public dance for which she was the hostess, and there are many suspects, many opportunities, a coincidence or two, and — it’s just the kind of mystery the Golden Age of Detective Stories is known for, even if the details of the plot aren’t quite as sharp as they should be. (Fuzzy around the fringes, you might say.)

   Mrs. Warrender, approaching 70 in this book, is perhaps of a little higher class standing than the aforementioned Mrs Christie’s Miss Marple, but she has the right instincts, and I humbly apologize to her for wondering why on earth the private eye’s mother is tagging along with him.

— February 2003

[UPDATE] 02-25-09. Quite remarkably, when I fished this review of out of the “archives,” the only two things that I remembered about the book were the two things that I wrote about it in my commentary. Either I was spot on in writing it up the first time, or in the process of writing it up, it reinforced in my mind the two aspects of it that I would find again remarkable at a later date; that is to say, now.