RogerBW's Blog

The Floating Admiral, The Detection Club 09 June 2016

1931 English detective fiction, in fourteen chapters by fourteen authors. The body of retired Admiral Penistone is found in a small boat on the river, stabbed through the heart. Everyone has a story, and everyone has something to hide.

It takes a lot to cause me not to enjoy a mystery of this era, and by these authors, but they managed it. I don't object to puzzle stories per se; the problem here is that each writer, having been handed the story complete up to the start of their own chapter, feels a need to insert their own new twists and turns and oddities, not to mention rubbishing the twists and turns and oddities of (and thus any attempted foreshadowing by) the previous writers.

So we have the murdered admiral found in his rowing-boat, and that boat being free of any trace of blood; we have the boat's painter cut, twice; and a missing dress and a changing alibi and a dubious will and a missing file and a mysterious woman and complicated tides on the river and and and… Ronald Knox, whose chapter comes about half-way through, devotes most of it to enumerating thirty-nine separate puzzles that need to be cleared up. It's too much. Playing this game is no fun.

Some of the chapters are obviously better-written than others, but I was rather surprised to see that it was Christie's where I found myself seriously bogging down; I know perfectly well that she could write better than this, as she usually did. Sayers is a welcome relief soon afterwards.

Naturally there are no lively-feeling characters here: it wasn't a strict requirement of the era anyway, but more to the point everyone is so tossed about by the authors between the roles of murderer, blackmail victim, etc., that they never get the chance to develop any personality beyond what's needed for that fragment of plot. Each author was required to have a solution to the mystery in mind, and some of the most interesting material here is their notes on the direction towards which they were working (oddly, placed at the end of the book rather than immediately after the chapter to which they are relevant). Poor Clemence Dane concludes his notes on the penultimate chapter with

I am, frankly, in a complete muddle as to what has happened, and have tried to write a chapter that anybody can use to prove anything they like.

This was probably great fun to write, at least in the early chapters, but it's clearly a collaboration between artists working primarily for an audience of each other rather than the public. By the time we find out whodunnit, I at least didn't really care any more.

I gather there are other Detection Club collaborations in this vein, as well as (perhaps) some more conventional short story collections. I'll be avoiding the former but keeping an eye out for the latter; the commercial purpose of this book was surely to introduce the fan of one or two of the writers to several of the others, and in this at least it has succeeded.

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