In which the members of the Detection Club each write a chapter on how Inspector Rudge investigates the case of the death of Admiral Penistone, found floating on a boat with the vicar’s hat. The book is relevant to our challenge, gentle reader, as one of the chapters was written by Agatha Christie. As usual, you can safely read this blog post and not discover whodunit!
More of an exercise in cleverness than a real attempt to write a proper detective book, members of the Detection Club each wrote a chapter with the following rules (and I am indebted to the introduction by Miss Dorothy L Sayers for this explanation): “Each writer must construct his instalment with a definite solution in view – that is, he must not introduce new complications merely “to make it more difficult.” He must be ready, if called upon, to explain his own clues coherently and plausibly; and to make sure that he was playing fair in this respect, each writer was bound to deliver, together with the manuscript of his own chapter, his own proposed solution of the mystery.” Chapters I to XII were written first, then bizarrely the prologue and the introduction. The result is a patchwork quilt of styles and content; the overall effect is one of unbalance but strangely intriguing.
G. K. Chesterton’s prologue, “The Three Pipe Dreams”, briefly provides the reader with three rather ethereal scenarios, that serve merely to give us the presence of a valiant sea captain who has passed out under the influence of drink and drugs. It brought to my mind those Princess Puffer scenes in Dickens’ Mystery of Edwin Drood. As Simon Brett points out in the foreword to the edition I’m reading: “the prologue […] seems to bear no relation to anything in the ensuing novel.” No real reason to linger here.
Chapter I – Corpse Ahoy! was written by Canon Victor L Whitechurch, a clergyman who wrote detective stories featuring his creation Thorpe Hazell, described on Wikipedia as “a vegetarian railway detective, whom the author intended to be as far from Sherlock Holmes as possible”. He wrote 26 detective novels, the first published in 1903, and died only two years after the publication of The Floating Admiral. This opening chapter introduces us to the character of Neddy Ware, ex-sailor, well-known fisherman; not local, only having lived in the area for ten years; and discoverer of the body of the late Admiral Penistone, clad in evening clothes, his white shirt front stained with blood, floating away in a boat with only Mr Mount (the vicar)’s clerical hat for company. Inspector Rudge is called in to investigate and quickly meets two hearty young lads – the vicar’s sons – who take him to see Mr Mount where Inspector Rudge drops the bombshell that his hat has been found near the dead body: “Your boat was drifting with the tide up-stream. And in her was the dead body of your opposite neighbour, Admiral Penistone – murdered, Mr Mount.” You can almost feel the shock.
Chapter II – Breaking The News was written by husband and wife team G D H Cole and M Cole, writers of 35 books of detective fiction between 1923 and 1948. The change of writing style is immediate and very noticeable. Whereas Whitechurch had been quite stately and elegant in his writing, the Coles were quite slovenly by comparison, adopting a much more conversational style and concentrating more on detail, less on the bigger picture. In particular, Mr Mount’s voice changes from Whitechurch’s rather formal and thoughtful tones to the Coles’ garrulous and wandering ones. The change really does not help the narrative thread at all, as you can’t believe it’s the same person talking. It’s more successful when we meet the Admiral’s niece, Elma Fitzgerald, because her character can be completely created anew. But the main feeling you get from this chapter is one of bluster and hurry, exhaustion and talking just a bit too much.
Chapter III – Bright Thoughts on Tides, was written by Henry Wade. He wrote twenty crime novels, but moreover, under his real name of Sir Henry Aubrey-Fletcher, 6th Baronet, was awarded the DSO and Croix de Guerre for his bravery in World War One and was also High Sherriff of Buckinghamshire. He died in 1969 and I have a tiny memory of him presenting programmes on BBC Radio Oxford when I were a lad! Whilst remaining largely conversational in format, Sir Henry’s natural authority absolutely shines through his words and again makes a stark contrast to the Coles’ more humdrum contribution. I like the way Inspector Rudge coaxes information out of people in this chapter – not only suspects and witnesses but also his police colleagues. Sir Henry must have had excellent coaching skills to tease further thoughts and explanations out of people. Regarding plot development, the chapter concentrates on the activities of Fitzgerald’s maid and how the tides might explain at what time and where from the boat carrying the dead body set sail.
Chapter IV – Mainly Conversation, by Agatha Christie (and therefore my main reason for blogging this book!) Christie decides to continue the conversation that had brought the previous chapter to a conclusion. After sending Appleton back to the vicarage to ask a very sensible question about coats, Rudge asks Hempstead for advice on where to get the best gossip – and Mrs Davis certainly fulfils that role. It would appear that Christie is still in Miss Marple mode! Peter and Alec the Mount boys reappear and pester Rudge for a job in the investigation – it’s a very Christie trait for people other than the police to do the investigating – and he sets them off to look for the murder weapon. And trust Christie to be the first writer to pen anything remotely xenophobic in the story. “One of those nasty murdering Eyetalian stilettos. Wops they call them in New York – the Eyetalians I mean…” As you would expect, Christie fills in a lot of detail and raises a few issues that are bound to turn out to be red herrings; and drives the story on with the big piece of information that the Admiral was in the Lord Marshall pub just a few hours before he was found murdered.
Chapter V – Inspector Rudge Begins to Form a Theory, a rather long-winded chapter title for the contribution by John Rhode, the pen name of Cecil John Charles Street, and a Major in the First World War. Under that nom de plume he wrote no fewer than 72 novels featuring his detective Dr Priestley, 6 other John Rhode books, 63 detective novels written under the name Miles Burton, 4 as Cecil Waye and approximately another ten in various other guises. Talk about prolific, he makes Christie look like an amateur! However, long-winded seems to be the tone of the chapter, with Rudge having conversations with the porter behind the hotel desk, and going back out to seek more information from Neddy Ware about tides; and although he gathers quite a lot of information, I found it quite a boring chapter. Maybe the next one will liven things up again?
Chapter VI – Inspector Rudge Thinks Better of It by Milward Kennedy. According to Simon Brett, he specialised in police procedurals, and wrote 20 books between 1928 and 1952. A new writer and a new method for Inspector Rudge – sitting and thinking. Then there are more questions – primarily of Emery and the vicar’s sons (one of whom uses the N word in a simple statement that strongly defines the era in which it was written) – and also discussions between the police officers trying to fill in the blanks of the case. We do get an important new piece of information though – why Miss Fitzgerald departed so rapidly.
Chapter VII – Shocks for the Inspector by Dorothy L Sayers. I was looking forward to this chapter because I have long enjoyed Miss Sayers’ detective stories featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, and one day I must get around to re-reading them too. The chapter’s initial conversation between Rudge and Peter Mount instantly makes you realise what a much more elegant writer we are dealing with here; and also how much more interested in the religious aspects of the vicar she is than any of the previous writers. Of the many little extras that this chapters gives us in the way of understanding the case, is the first mention of the Admiral in Hong Kong back in 1911 – which ties us in with the rather woolly prologue. And the chapter ends with a definite bang (as opposed to a whimper) with the dramatic return of Elma and Holland.
Chapter VIII – Thirty-nine Articles of Doubt, written by Ronald Knox, more known for his religious and non-fiction books than his detective novels, which featured his sleuth Miles Bredon. It doesn’t take long, as you start reading this relatively long chapter, what a very different style Knox had. This is very formal, almost turgid writing. As a contrast with Sayers’ delightfully elegant style this was like wading through treacle. The thirty-nine articles of the chapter heading are the questions that Rudge poses to himself in his night-time memorandum; and by the time he’s written them all out, Knox concludes the chapter, leaving any potential for solution to the next writer! I did enjoy his contemplations about why the body was found in the boat – that for me was the most thought-provoking of his Articles. But, well thought out as they may be, the thirty-nine Articles look like someone saying, I’ve read it very carefully so far and showing off with their ideas. It doesn’t have much of a literary style, and kind of stands out like the proverbial sore thumb.
Chapter IX – The Visitor in the Night, by Freeman Wills Crofts. Crofts was most famous for his Inspector French novels – the detective semi-parodied in the story The Unbreakable Alibi in Christie’s Partners in Crime. He wrote 33 detective novels between 1920 and 1957. This chapter follows Rudge as he investigates the mysterious lady who arrives in town late at night. It’s quite nicely written on the whole, and I won’t say any more!
Chapter X – The Bathroom Basin by Edgar Jepson. This was towards the end of his life, having written forty books all in all, between 1885 and 1938. This brief chapter starts with the surprising news that one of the police officers is related to someone in the book – but I don’t think it will turn out to be relevant to the case. The prime purpose for this chapter is simply to prove that someone has shaved their beard off. When, we have a rough idea; why, there are some possibilities and who, that’s to be discovered shortly.
Chapter XI – At the Vicarage, by Clemence Dane. The writer of over thirty plays and sixteen novels, her writing career started in 1917 with Regiment of Women, a somewhat controversial novel that included lesbian relationships in a school setting. This little chapter is charmingly and amusingly written, with a deft turn of phrase that makes me think I would like to read some of her books. Not a lot actually happens during the course of this chapter, apart from at the very end, when the plot development takes a huge turn for the better; getting a kick up the backside that it really needed to keep the reader’s interest alive.
Chapter XII – Clearing up the Mess, by Anthony Berkeley, one of the founders of the Detection Club, creator of detective Roger Sheringham, writer under many pen names, including Francis Iles’ whose Before The Fact (1932) would be adapted to become Hitchcock’s classic film, Suspicion. Thus, as the chapter title suggests, it is left to Anthony Berkeley to make some head or tail of the previous eleven chapters. And he does a pretty good job! Finally, the book gathers some suspense as Rudge, with Chief Constable Twyfitt, tie up the Hong Kong background and at one stage I thought it was going to turn into a kind of Murder on the Orient Express, with everyone being implicated in the crime. Although it’s one long chapter, it’s split into separate sections, with plenty of opportunities for some excellent cliffhangers. And there’s no doubt that the revelation of whodunit is a humdinger.
But it doesn’t end there. If you remember, Dorothy L Sayers said in her introduction: “each writer was bound to deliver, together with the manuscript of his own chapter, his own proposed solution of the mystery.” So we now get to read all the contributors’ own solutions to the story. Two, Whitechurch and the Coles, don’t bother – so I hope they got kicked out of the Detection Club. Some provided very peremptory solutions, almost a five-minute rushed job. Sayers provides a hugely intricate and detailed solution. Between them, the eleven contributors (we ignore Berkeley who provided the denouement for the book) lay the crime at any of five people in the story; only two accurately identified the murderer, Rhode and Sayers.
And that concludes this little look at The Floating Admiral. It was an interesting book to read on the whole, although more for the exercise than any real literary thrills. If you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge we’re going back to her “proper novels” and her 1931 whodunit, The Sittaford Mystery. As always, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!