Welcome once again to the reasonably self-explanatory Mondays with Marple, in which we discuss Agatha Christie’s works featuring the delightful Jane Marple. Today I’m doing things a bit differently, because I’m going to present to you a book that doesn’t feature Miss Marple, and of which Agatha Christie has only written a chapter. The reason I’ve chosen this one is because I immediately became enamoured of the premise under which it was written and couldn’t wait to dive in and see how it all turned out.
The Floating Admiral is today’s book and it is a collaborative murder mystery written, chapter by chapter, by the members of The Detection Club, circa 1931. What is the Detection Club? Well, it was a club comprised of a whole host of authors of crime fiction who met regularly to eat, drink and be merry. Essentially, in the creation of The Floating Admiral, they decided to collaboratively write a murder mystery – but with a twist. Here’s how it went down:
* Each author got to write one chapter of the mystery, which they then passed on to the next person in line to continue
* One author was chosen to tie all the loose ends together and reveal the murderer/s in the final chapter
* The authors, along with their chapter, had to include their solution to the mystery in a sealed envelope. These were printed as an appendix at the end of the novel
* The authors had to “play fair” by the reader – that is, they couldn’t use any twee tropes such as “it was all a dream” to get out of solving the mystery, and they had to assume that any clues or characters included in the chapters before theirs was included for a reason and therefore needed to feature in some way in their proposed solution
Isn’t this a GREAT IDEA??! Well, I thought it was, and that’s why I’m reviewing it today. All up there were 14 contributors,, including (in writing order): G. K. Chesterton, Canon Victor Whitechurch, G. D. H. Cole and Margaret Cole, Henry Wade, Agatha Christie, John Rhode, Milward Kennedy, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ronald Knox, Freeman Wills Crofts, Edgar Jepson, Clemence Dane and Anthony Berkeley.
When the vicar’s boat is found floating aimlessly down the river, no one expects it to contain the body of the his neighbour, the retired Admiral Penistone, featuring a nasty stab wound. Inspector Rudge is called to take the case and immediately finds himself stymied when the Admiral’s niece and mysterious fiance leave town before they can be adequately questioned. But this isn’t going to be Rudge’s only trouble – with the vicar clearly behaving in a slightly shady fashion, and some very odd stipulations in the Admiral’s will, it’s going to take all of Rudge’s wits (and some local knowledge of the tidal river currents) to unravel this mystery.
The Usual Suspects:
The slightly-unhelpful-while-appearing-to-be-helpful vicar, the niece of the victim (complete with attitude), the somewhat-shady fiance of said niece, the local old sea dog, a collection of house staff with secrets, a retired acquaintance of the deceased, and a number of absent relatives and hangers-on that may or may not have anything to do with the current circumstances.
Level of Carnage:
Reasonably low for most of the book, although towards the end there is a bit more reasonably graphic carnage to liven things up.
High. Given that there’s 12 people adding to the story, the level of tricksiness is cumulative. There are red herrings all over the place here and more arrive with every chapter.
Three Abandoned Punts
While the premise for the mystery excited me to begin with, it did take a long time to play out and the plot was pretty convoluted by the end. The narrative ended up being not so much dialogue driven, as is the case with many Christie novels, but featured a lot of introspection on the part of Inspector Rudge as he works through the case. I felt that an extra detective or assistant would have helped in this regard to avoid slowing the narrative too much – one of the chapters features 39 articles of doubt, in which Rudge postulates on 39 of the most puzzling bits of the case. At great length. Which was good for getting everyone up to speed on what was happening and where the investigation might go next, but also became quite tedious after about article 20 or so.
The best thing about this book for me was the opportunity to sample the work of a whole lot of mystery writers who were contemporaries of Christie, and whose work I might like to try in the future. Also, reading all the solutions at the end and the comments from the authors in the vein of “I’ve got no idea where such-and-such comes into it!” really brought home the idea that for the people that wrote it, mystery writing really was like a game of intellect that was fun to unravel.
Definitely give this one a go if you’re a fan of mystery writing from this era, but keep in mind that the end result was more a game for the writers than an exemplary piece of crime fiction for the readers.
Until next time,