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GDH and M Cole - Meet Superintendent Wilson

A fascinating insight into the character written by the author

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SCENE : A Railway Carriage. There are three people in the compartment—at one end a man and a woman who have been for some time in conversation when the dialogue opens, at the other end a man who has so far not entered into the conversation.

READER : It's astonishing to me how people can differ about detective stories. Why, if I want to get one out of the library, I can hardly get two of my friends to agree about a decent one. If one praises one, the next is sure to say that it's all tommy-rot, or as dull as ditchwater, or something of that sort.
MRS. COLE : Don't you think, Mr. Reader, that that's because detective stories are really of very different kinds, or rather, because publishers lump all sorts of types of story under the name "detective yarn." You can have a story full of crimes and gangs and secret treaties and unknown poisons; in that sort of story you don't mind whether the plot makes sense or not, provided you are carried along fast enough from one hairbreadth escape to the next. Or you can have a psychological novel, where the murder is supposed to be all accounted for by the murderer's complexes, or the corpse's complexes, or all their complexes mixed up together; that sort of novel has a very high proportion of long and difficult words, so that it would almost be easier to read a university treatise. Personally, I hate that sort of story, but quite a number of people seem to like it, so I suppose it must have its points. Then again, you can have mathematical or scientific novels, with elaborately worked out clues and no characters worth speaking of; or yet again, straightforward stories where the interest is mainly in the plot and the characters taken together, and not so much in the detective himself. You can't expect the same person to appreciate all these different types of story. If what a reader really likes is blood and thunder, he'll be bored stiff with psychology and mathematics, and vice versa. Now, in the kind of stories I write . . .

READER : Pardon me, but did you say you wrote detective stories?
MRS. COLE : Yes, in collaboration with my husband. My name's Cole.
READER: Well, this is interesting. I'm very pleased indeed to make your acquaintance, Mrs. Cole. I've always wanted to meet a real detective-story writer in the flesh. Now I wonder whether you'd think it rude if I asked you one or two questions about your work?
MRS. COLE : Certainly not. Please go ahead, and ask what you like.
READER : Well, in the first place. I ought to say I've read a lot of your books and been tremendously interested by them. But what I want to know is, how do you writers come to think of your characters? How did you come to think of Superintendent Wilson, for example?
MRS. COLE : That's simple. It happened about twelve years ago. My husband had an illness and was ordered off all work. But he said writing detective stories wasn't work, and so he wrote one. It was just about the time when Freeman Wills Crofts first stories were coming out, and all the intelligentsia were very much excited about them. I believe I jeered at him a bit, and said he wouldn't be able to finish anything so frivolous as a novel; and that may have helped him to get along. Anyway, he did; he wrote The Brooklyn Murders, and since then we have always written our novels together.
READER : Yes; and I've often wondered how you did it. Do you do a chapter each, or what?
MRS. COLE: Oh, no; that would make a frightful muddle. We should get all the clues and the times mixed up, and they'd never sort out again. What happens is that on each novel one or the other does the main bit of the work. We settle on a plot, more or less; then one of us does a first draft and shows it to the other for criticism. Then the fun begins. My husband—if it's I who've written the draft—says, "Look here, this and this won't do, you know; you've made the man be in two places four hundred miles apart at the same time; you've made him travel by Underground at three in the morning; and really the murderer's wife is an impossible character." Then I say, "Well, if you feel like that there's no use going on; in fact, I might as well throw it into the fire at once." And so on. Well, after a bit of discussion of this kind we calm down, and discover that if Chapters X and XII are altered and a few other changes made it will pass. And so it's altered, and eventually turns up as a book, all in proper form.

READER: Yes, I see. But what I specially wanted to know was, How did you come to get hold of Superintendent Wilson? Where did he come from?
MRS. COLE : Well, I really hardly know. My husband invented him first, but as to where he came from— Where do one's characters come from? One just thinks of them, and there they are—not all complete, of course, for they usually grow in your mind as you set to work to use them. But, broadly speaking, they just come; and that, I suppose, is how Superintendent Wilson got started. I've often thought, if we met him in real life, he might have a bone or two to pick with his creators.
WILSON : Pardon my interrupting, madam. But I heard you mention my name, and so—— MRS. COLE : I beg your pardon. What did you say?
WILSON: I said I heard you mention my name. You see, I happen to be Superintendent Wilson, and I have been hoping to meet you or your husband for a long time past. As you suggested to this gentleman just now, there are one or two things I should very much like to inquire of you.
MRS. COLE: Crows you'd like to pluck with me, I suppose you mean. By all means. Go ahead, and Mr. Reader shall be judge between us.
READER: Delighted, I'm sure. (Aside] What a story to tell when I get back! MRS. COLE: Well?
WILSON : In the first place, are you aware that you made me six inches taller in your later books than I was in The Brooklyn Murders'?

MRS. COLE : Yes, I know we did, though I think it's rather unkind of you to bring it up. It was a pure oversight. We didn't know you then nearly so well as we do now, and we just allowed you to grow taller without thinking. But you're not really seriously objecting to that, are you? Surely it's much nicer to be tall. Think of the things you can reach now that you couldn't then; and you must be ever so much better now at a rough-and-tumble, if it ever comes to that, no
WILSON: But supposing you shortened me again? Where should I be then?
MRS. COLE : Oh, we won't do that. If that's what's worrying you, you can rest assured. Your height is now a perfectly well-established fact. You're definitely one of the tall and gentlemanly looking detectives, not the sort that go about trying to look as though they had come out of a dustbin, or limping, or stooping, or peering short-sightedly, just in order to attract people's attention.
WILSON : Well, that's a weight off my mind. But is anything else about me established, except that I'm tall and, so you tell me, gentlemanly?
MRS. COLE: What else do you want established?
WILSON : Any amount of things. I want to know what sort of person I'm supposed to be. I want to know, for one thing, what my speciality is. Among my colleagues, I'm always rubbing shoulders with people who have an appalling amount of specialized knowledge. I can introduce you to a detective who knows all about science, another who's a learned Egyptologist, another who knows the last word about tides and railway time-tables, and another who is a connoisseur of first editions and wine. But I don't seem to be up in any of these things, and it's your doing. You and your husband are both intellectuals—you've specialities of your own. It's hardly fair, leaving me to rely simply on my wits when I get up against all these heavy-weight experts.

MRS. COLE: But, my dear man, have you ever considered what our specialities are?
WILSON: Well, you know something about history, don't you, and your husband about economics? Surely I might be allowed to know something about them too.
MRS. COLE : You can know all you like about them, and welcome, in your spare time. You might begin by reading some of our "Intelligent Man's Guides," if you haven't already. We've never interfered with your activities off duty. But we can't have you bringing that sort of knowledge into our books.
WILSON : Why not?
MRS. COLE : Do be reasonable. You're surely not asking to be allowed to come in on the books we write that aren't novels at all, but stuff about history and economics, and that sort of thing. Do you really want us to write a mystery novel all about the gold standard, or the lives of the Merovingian kings? Do you think it would do your reputation any good if we did? Do you think anybody would read it? Or do you want us to send you circulating round the centuries like the Wandering Jew? It wouldn't be a bit like you.

WILSON: There's something in that. I can conceive a good historical detective story being written; but I can see that I shouldn't be in it. Nevertheless my question remains. What am I like? If I'm not to show off any special knowledge, can't I at least have some overpowering trick or characteristic which will make me the person that does really dominate your stories? You're always putting in people who have far more idiosyncrasies than I have, and letting them elbow me off the stage. As it is, I'm just the man who has to find out what has happened; and how do you expect me to do it, when you don't give me half a chance? What am I? I haven't got a protruding jaw, or a steely wrist, or a long rabbit-like face. I haven't got any tricks; I don't swear a great deal, or habitually talk Latin. I'm not notoriously irritable. I don't boast, or call everybody "Old Thing." I don't even absorb cocaine.
MRS. COLE: Well, do you want to?
WILSON : God forbid. I should hate it. And my wife would strongly object.
MRS. COLE: You see, you have got a personality. You're the sort of man who doesn't want to take cocaine, and tries not to do things his wife would object to.
WILSON : It seems to me I'm the sort of man who doesn't want to do anything. How can I dominate your pages if I'm only a bundle of negatives?
MRS. COLE: We don't want you to dominate them. We want the main interest of our stories to be in the stories themselves, and in the people and their relations one with another. We want you to be the right sort of person for unravelling the mystery; and the less you get in the way when you aren't wanted for that purpose, the better we shall be pleased.

WILSON : I don't think it's fair on me. Whenever I meet one of the great detectives of fiction I feel quite ashamed of not being cleverer.
MRS. COLE: Rubbish! you don't feel in the least ashamed. You're thoroughly pleased with yourself, really. You've got your method and it suits you as well as us.
WILSON: Can a bundle of negatives have a method?
MRS. COLE : Indeed, you're not a bundle of negatives; and you don't think so, really. In the first place, you bear some resemblance to my husband, though of course you're not so good-looking. But you're tall, like him, and have grey eyes. You have a wife and children, and lead a most respectable life. And you've got a passion for beer, just as he has, though he's not allowed to drink any of it. But more than that, you have a very real method and practice of your own, which suits you perfectly well, and has the advantage of bringing you into kinship with the ordinary man all over the world.

WILSON : And what is that, may I ask?
MRS. COLE: Why, you use your wits, and you take pains. You look at people and find out how they act by knowing what sort of people they are, and do that without missing the material clues. You consult your wife, like a sensible husband, when you get stuck. You trust to reason, with a bit of luck thrown in, and don't talk rubbish about the higher psychology and that sort of thing. In fact, you behave as the ordinary intelligent man does, with the advantage of good training and an organization behind you and a bit more sense than the average.
WILSON: It's a bit humdrum, isn't it?
MRS. COLE : Oh, if you want blood-and-thunder, go and hire yourself out to the blood-and-thunder writers. That's not our line. But you don't really, you know. You're much happier as you are.
WILSON : But I can't be happy, unless I know a bit more than that about myself. Take all my past life, for example, before I became Superintendent Wilson of Scotland Yard. I don't know a thing about it. I don't even know how old I am, or when and where I met my wife, or what I did before you started putting me into your books.
MRS. COLE: Well, I can tell you some of that. You're a bit older than my husband—in the forties, let's say, but a bit nearer the fifties than the thirties. You married Mrs. Wilson, after meeting her in one of your cases, just after you had been promoted to be Inspector—the youngest Inspector at the Yard. And before long you'll be hearing a bit more about your past, because in our next story you're going to be Detective-Sergeant Wilson, as you were just about twenty-five years ago.

WILSON : Thank you. That's helpful, as far as it goes. I shall look forward to being young again. How did I get into the police—as an ordinary policeman, or in some special way?
MRS. COLE : Just as a plain policeman. They didn't have bright boys from the universities in those days, the same as they do now. You started in as P.C. Wilson, and worked your way up.
WILSON : I rather thought that. I've never felt much of a toff.
MRS. COLE: You aren't. You came of respectable but impecunious, middle-class parents, and got a scholarship to a secondary school. You stayed there till you were eighteen, and then chose the police force because you thought it offered more scope for the imagination than sitting on a stool and entering things in a ledger. Very wise of you, in my opinion.
WILSON: I do know a good bit more about myself now than I've ever known before. I'm meant to be educated but not highbrow, I gather, and intelligent without being anything at all of a wizard.
MRS. COLE : Just that. You're the sort of detective about whom any intelligent reader can say to himself: "There's no reason why I shouldn't have thought of that if I'd been only a little bit cleverer." You're the sort of detective who enables the reader to put himself in your place, whereas nobody can put himself in the place of one of those supermen who know everything and lead to conclusions by the most miraculous intuitions without a tittle of evidence.

WILSON: Very well. I suppose I shall have to be satisfied with that.
READER: I hope you will, Mr. Wilson. And give us another of your solutions very soon.
WILSON : As soon as I am allowed I will do my best. But that, you will realize, depends on Mr. and Mrs. Cole.

GDH and M Cole bibliography

Text © 1935 GDH and M Cole-Allen & Unwin    Layout © 2004 R.D. Collins

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