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Raymond (William) Postgate (1896-1971)


English social historian and mystery writer, whose best-known crime novel is Verdict of Twelve (1940). In the story a murder trial is followed through different jurors and their reactions. Postgate's sister was Margaret Isabel Cole (1893-1980), who wrote with her husband G.D.H. Cole (1889-1959) several mystery novels. Postgate was a devoted socialist and he became later an authority on gastronomy. He also published translations from Greek, Latin, and French.

"What knowledge have you of murder? How do you know' (his voice rose into a high key) 'what would drive a woman to kill, and what would hold her back from that awful crime? Answer me that!'" (from Vedict of Twelve)

Raymond Postagate was born in Cambridge, the eldest son of Professor J.P. Postgate, a classical scholar. He was educated at the Perse School, Liverpool College, and St. John's College, Oxford. During the World War I he was a conscientious objector and was jailed in 1916 for two weeks. The father of his wife, Daisy Lansbury, was the famous pacifist and leader of the Labour Party, George Lansbury. Postgate's sister, Margaret Postgate, married the Socialist economist and historian G.D.H. Cole. The Coles also published mystery novels, starting with The Brooklyn Murders (1923), the only one G.D.H. Cole wrote alone. The 'Brooklyn' of the title does not refer to New York City, but, rather, to an English family. Later Postgate collaborated with Cole on The Common People 1746-1938 (1938).

Before joining the Labour Party, Postgate was one of the founding members of the Communist Party of Great Britain. As a journalist Postgate started his career in 1918, working on the Daily Herald, Lansbury's Weekly, and as a department editor for Encyclopaedia Britannica from 1927 to 1928. He was a European representative for Alfred A. Knopf publishers (1929-49), and edited Tribune from 1940-42. During this period Communists used it to denounce Finnish imperialist war on Soviet Russia. (Actually, Finland was attacked by the Red Army in the winter of 1939-40, and lost huge areas to the Soviet Union after the Continuation War 1941-44.) From 1942 to 1949 Postgate worked at the Board of Trade and Ministry of Supply.

Verdict of Twelve (1940) is an application of Marx's famous thesis that a man's social position determines his consciousness. In the story Rosalie van Beer, a middle-aged widow with a fondness for wine, is on trial for murder by poisoning. The novels studies the minds of twelve members of a jury, who hold in their hands the power of life and death. Postgate suggests that their background and their pasts made the verdict inevitable. "She thought to herself, in a manner as near to humour as any thoughts of hers could be, that it wouldn't half be queer if she had to be juror in a murder case. Somebody who did know how, judging somebody that didn't. For she never attempted to forget that she had killed her aunt, and she never had the least regret. She was rather proud of it, though she remembered having several bad scares and was certain she'd never do such a thing again." Postagate's other two novels, Somebody at the Door (1943) and The Ledger Is Kept (1953) have similar social basis for the stories. 

Every Man Is God (1959) told the history of a family and a house, beginning in 1883 and running though the following decades. The reader is transported into a vanished life the old British army, the underworld of Victorian vice, the peace of Edwardian country life. At the same time Postgate draws a picture of quiet married love, peace and hope with nostalgic charm. "There are short 'dead patches' in history just as there are insensitive areas on the human thigh. They are the times when one period has ended and another has not yet begun, when for a brief while men can only see a blank before them. What is past has gone; something else will come, but what it will be nobody knows; nothing has yet happened, but soon it will. Meanwhile there is an uncoloured flatness around; with nothing but the ordinary daily routine of duties to relieve it." (from Every Man is God)

Among Postgate's other works are three detective stories, a novel No Epitaph (1932), short stories, and biographies. He wrote many books about workers' history, and a biography about his father-in-law, George Lansbury. The source Postgate used was the main Landsbury archive and his memoirs, but he also drew on personal knowledge and family recollections. Some thirty boxes of papers, which he had handed over to the government authorities, were lost during World War II.

Postgate had always been interested in food and wine, and he decided to make an effort to raise standards by editing the reports of a band of volunteers on their visits to British hotels and restaurants. The highly influential Good Food Club was born as a result of the idea. Postgate wrote books about choosing and serving wine, and edited The Good Food Guide to Britain, which was published biennially. In 1962 the publication was taken over by the Consumers' Association. Raymond Postgate died on March 29, 1971. His son, Oliver, became a filmmaker and writer. In 1973 he made with Peter Firmin for the BBC a film series, which was voted in 1999 'The Best Ever BBC Children's Programme.'

For further reading: Growing Up Into Revolution by M. Cole (1949); Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection, ed. by Chris Steinbrunner and Otto Penzler (1976); Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers, ed. by J.M. Reilly (1985); The Life of Raymond Postgate by J. Postagte and M.A. Stomach (1994); A Stomach for Dissent: The Life of Raymond Postgate: 1896-1971 by John and Mary Postgate (1994); World Authors 1900-1950, Vol. Three, ed. by Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens (1996). Note:  The Coles' mystery writing career began with The Brooklyn Murders (1923), which was written by Douglas Cole alone. A full length biography of him by Margaret I. Cole was published in 1972.

Selected works:

  • The International (Socialist Bureau) During the War,1918
  • Doubts Concerning a League of Nations, 1919
  • The Bolshevik Theory, 1920
  • Revolution from 1789-1906: Documents, 1920 (ed.)
  • The Workers' International, 1920
  • Chartism and the "Trades Union", 1922
  • Oout of the Past: Some Revolutionary Sketches, 1922
  • Revolutionary Biographies, 1922
  • The Builders' History, 1923
  • Pervigilium Venus: The Eve of Venus, 1924 (ed. and tr.)
  • Murder, Piracy and Treason: A Selection of Notable English Trials, 1925 (ed.)
  • A Short History of the British Workers, 1926
  • A Workers' History of the Great Strike, 1927
  • "That Devil Wilkes", 1928
  • The Conversations of Dr. Johnson / James Boswll, 1930 (ed.)
  • Robert Emmet, 1931 (US title: Dear Robert Emmet, 1932)
  • No Epitaph: A Novel, 1932 (US title: Felix and Anne, 1933)
  • Karl Marx, 1933
  • Radio, Press and Publishing [in Soviet Russia], 1933
  • How to Make a Revolution, 1934
  • What to Do with the B.B.C., 1935
  • A Pocket History of the British Workers to 1919, 1937
  • Those Foreigners: The English People's Opinions on Foreign Affairs as Reflected in Their Newspapers since Waterloo, 1937 (with Aylmer Vallance; US title: England Goes to Press, 1937)
  • The Common People 1746-1938, 1938 (with G.D.H. Cole; US title: The British Common People, 1939; rev. ed. The British People, 1947)
  • Verdict of Twelve, 1940
    - Valamiesten tuomio (suom. Paavo Soukka, 1958)
    - TV film: Verdict of Three (1958), in Playhouse 90, dir. by Buzz Kulik, adaptation by James P. Cavanagh, starring Gladys Cooper, Angela Lansbury, Rod Taylor, Michael Wilding, Carmen Mathews, Cecil Kellaway, Yvonne DeCarlo
  • Detective Stories of Today, 1940 (ed.)
  • Let's Talk It Over: An Argument about Socialism, 1942
  • Somebody at the Door, 1943
  • The Outline of History / H.G. Wells, 1949 (ed.)
  • "By Me...": A Report upon the Apparent Discovery of Some Working Notes by William Shakespeare / Moray MacLaren, 1949 (ed.)
  • The Plain Man's Guide to Wine, 1951 (revised edition, 1957, 1965)
  • The Good Food Guide 1951-52, 1951 (ed., also later editions)
  • The Life of George Lansbury, 1951
  • Mitsou / Colette, 1951 (translation)
  • The Ledger is Kept, 1953
  • An Alphabet of Choosing and Serving Wine, 1955
  • Story of a Year: 1848, 1955
  • Every Man is God, 1959
  • The Home Wine Cellar, 1960
  • Story of a Year: 1798, 1969
  • Portuguese Wine, 1969
  • The Agamemnon of Aeschylus, 1969 (edited by Raymond Postgate, with an introduction, a commentary and a translation into modern English prose)

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