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Wednesday 13 January 2021

Raymond Postgate (1896-1971)

 by Nick Hay

Raymond Postgate is a fascinating figure, a writer whose subjects were wide and various. 

Among his wide-ranging interests are to be found three remarkable mysteries.  In my view Verdict of Twelve is not only the underrated British mystery novel, it is also among the best absolutely.
A committed socialist all his life, although he left the Communist Party as early as 1922 Postgate’s mysteries give the lie to the myth (which is still peddled by some today in the face of all the evidence) that the mystery genreinherently right-wing – and he did this at the height of the Golden Age.

Verdict of Twelve is probably one of the only mysteries, certainly one of the only mysteries of the period, with a preceding quotation from Marx: his famous aphorism that…

It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but on the contrary their social determines their consciousness

The book sets out to demonstrate that thesis. The way it does this is to consider the jury at a murder trial. In the first part of the book we are introduced to the twelve members of the jury. The very first one we meet is herself a successful murderess. This concept and its execution instantly assures the reader that they are in the presence of not only a very good writer, but one with both a delicious sense of irony and one with agift for narrative. We then proceed through the twelve members of the jury, from a wide range of social backgrounds. Each portrait is a mini-masterpiece of characterisation. Many of the characters have something to hide, and some are wearingmasks. There is the Greek who is more English than the English, the closet gay, the loopy Christian obsessed with the notion of the Elect (who shall be saved – 144,000 apparently!), the Jewish women whose husband was killed by racist thugs, the Trade Unionist and the young socialist ( a self-portrait in which Postgate proves that he is very willing to poke fun at himself ) and so on. These and the other sketches are all intended to give us the sociological and psychological backgrounds of the members of the jury.

The second section of the book is a conventional narrative of ‘The Case’. Now it is vital to emphasise that at the heart ofVerdict of Twelvea genuinely mystifying whodunit. We certainly do not know (that would ruin the book) but the events are clearly narrated. Whether or not she committed the murder – which is of an 11-year old boy by poison – the accused, Mrs Van Beer, is a very unpleasant woman. Even here though Postgate shows that she has her reasons. Not excuses but reasons. However the reader certainly cannot like Mrs Van Beer.

The third section of the book – its highlight and centrepiece -is the trial and verdict. The trial itself is handled with great dramatic skill. But it is the deliberations in the jury room to which Postgate has been building. He takes each member of the jury in turn and has them deliver their arguments and conclusions showing how and why they have reached these. A brilliant innovation is a sort of illustrative dial running from an absolute ‘no’ to an absolute ‘yes’ (in terms of the accused’s guilt). In the end the jury decides for acquittal. Postgate clearly shows that this is not based on the evidence but on the personal consciousness (formed of course from their experience) of each member of the jury. With ironic brilliance the one person who has real insight into the mind of a murderer cannot(because she would reveal herself as a murderess).

In a brief postscript Mrs Van Beer reveals the truth to her lawyer and her solicitor. It is common-place and humdrum. There is no sensational revelation there, but equally the reader is highly unlikely to have guessed it. This is a book with not one but numerous strong plots, because many of the characterisations have their own story-lines. The central mystery is a genuine mystery, but its solution is somewhat banal. This is quite deliberate. Verdict of Twelve is a perfectly conceived and perfectly realised mystery. It is also quite unique. Postgate succeeds in demonstrating his thesis. But the book remains at all times extremely human: Postgate has sympathy for all his  characters, even the most unlikable. As must be true if one accepts the validity of Marx’s central claim. This book is, in every way, a masterpiece of mystery fiction.

So was Postgate a one-hit wonder? Well yes and no. His other two mysteries are certainly not misses, but they do not possess the brilliance of Verdict of Twelve. It would probably be more accurate to say that he was a one-masterpiece wonder. Somebody at The Door reworks the formula of the first book, albeit in a very different guise. Here there is a straightforward mystery at the centre of the book – a man is murdered, with what is found to be mustard gas, and Inspector Holly, a somewhat colourless but conscientious policeman, has to discover the killer. The similarity comes in the fact that suspicion falls on one of the occupants of the train carriage in which the victim, Councillor Grayling commuted back to his home. Postgate is therefore able to introduce the stories of several of these characters, some of which take up a good deal of time. The book however is also a study of Britain in 1943 and may definitely be counted as WW2 mystery: as such it has, like all the mysteries written at this time, considerable interest as a historical document. It is a much darker and more tragic book thanVerdict of Twelvethe characters are, by and large,likeable. A mood of war exhaustion hangs over both the characters and the fiction itself.

If Postgate had never written Verdict of Twelve I think one would judge Somebody at the Door highly. As it is, and given that the plot resolution, while both neat and possessing a kind of horror, is in the last analysis ordinary (which I am sure was Postgate’s intention) the book does read like a retread of its predecessor in a minor and darker key. It is still however most unquestionably very well worth seeking out (though this may be hard to do – while Verdict of Twelve is easily available in a modern reprint, Somebody at The Door sets a tidy sum – this book needs reprinting!!).

The work of Raymond Postgate is distinctive for its informing left-wing ideology, which alone would make it somewhat exceptional in Golden Age circles (yes I know about the Coles but as far as I can tell their ideology did not greatly enhance their work) and often socialist mystery lovers. But there is much more to it than that, as I hope that this commentary has demonstrated.   
Verdict of Twelve (1940)
 Somebody at the Door (1943)
 The Ledger is Kept (1953)

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