Old family tales contained in A Century Of Detective Stories…

Spine of old detective book with noirish drawing

THE spine is frayed with age and tattered shreds remain from the book it once supported, A Century Of Detective Stories, with an Introduction by GK Chesterton.

This relic of a book, brown to start with, browner still with age, otherwise features a noir-style drawing of a detective wearing a trilby and holding a gun, and the name of the publisher, Hutchinson.

The gun is a puzzle in a way, as the owner of the book, my grandfather Bill Cole, was a peaceable man, a Methodist who spent the Battle of the Somme toiling through blood and mud as a stretcher-bearer.

Quite why a religious man who survived all that would have owned  a book of detective stories adorned with a man carrying a gun is one of those little mysteries, akin perhaps to how his equally religious wife, Eunice, loved the wrestling on TV. Just because you like one thing, or live one way, doesn’t mean you cannot like another.

When my grandmother died, we were asked by my aunt if we would like to take something from the house in Southampton.

We chose a rose from the front garden, successfully transplanted to York but long since withered and died, two small and roughly carved wooden figures of a man and a woman, bought by my grandparents on a holiday to somewhere, Switzerland or Austria perhaps, and still on a shelf, and that old book.

Many of the writers are forgotten to time, although some are indelible: Edgar Allan Poe, Edgar Wallace, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, and Chesterton himself.

The titles are great: The Avenging Chance, Superfluous Murder, The Case Of The White Footprints, The Other Hangman. A story entitled A Lesson In Crime is by a couple called Cole – GDH & M Cole. GDH is described as a writer of economics “who has produced many novels and short stories in the detective vein. He is also a poet and a contributor to a number of important journals”.

Of his wife no other mention is made.

Still, it is pleasing that a man called Cole owned a book containing a story written by a man called Cole, and that his grandson called Cole would grow up to publish a couple of novels featuring detectives too.

I’ve owned this now spineless book for years but haven’t read all or any of the stories. Maybe I did but forgot, and it is past time to do something about that.

Our daughter has left home again and has her own house now, so we’ve been having a sort out (or my wife has, with variably able assistance). Now she has her own studio, I have my own study, and on the wall before me is the spine of that book. I’d been meaning for years to do something with that fragment, then my wife found a frame and popped it in.

The important things we keep from previous generations are often not the ones you imagine, the old furniture or whatever, and never mind what Alan Clark once damningly said of his fellow Conservative Michael Heseltine, that he was the sort of man who “bought his own furniture”. Don’t we all? Better that than inherit mouldy old furniture.

An online search of second-hand bookshops suggests this book is a 1935 edition which, if in good condition, is worth £37, and contains 45 stories of mystery and intrigue by the foremost mystery writers of the period.

My time-weathered copy is worth everything and nothing, and anyway it’s not for sale.

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