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JAI ARJUN SINGH
WORDSMITH

Jai Arjun Singh is an author and runs the popular cinema and books blog Jabberwock.

Murder in tandem does not quite sync

t isn't unheard of for a novel to be co-authored, but it does seem like too much of a good thing when a murder mystery is constructed, in installments, by twelve professional crime writers. If too many cooks spoil the broth, do too many writers over-boil a plot?

Yet these were the circumstances in which a whodunit titled The Floating Admiral was put together in 1931, by members of the Detection Club comprising such British mystery writers as Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Freeman Wills Crofts. Set in a small English town named Whynmouth (on the banks of a temperamental river that keeps changing tide much to everyone's bemusement), the story begins with the discovery of a boat containing the corpse of an Admiral Penistone. The first few pages establish the facts of the case and introduce us to Inspector Rudge, who will conduct the investigation; but each successive chapter, penned by a different writer, adds new characters and subplots. The Admiral's death, it turns out, could have something to do with the wedding plans of his sour-faced niece, but it could also have a connection with 20-year-old events in the opium dens of faraway China.

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The Floating Admiral is a notable curio – a literary experiment that should be of value to the aspiring detective-story writer, or to someone with special interest in the methods of the crime novelists of the time.

While the book's long final chapter – written by Anthony Berkeley – "officially" ties up the loose ends, there is also an Appendix featuring the solutions proposed by each writer. These were submitted along with the chapters they wrote, which means that at the time of forming these solutions they had no knowledge of the complications that would be introduced by the later contributors. Nor would any writer be allowed to read the others' solutions until the book was finished.

If this sounds confusing, it jolly well is. Here's my main reservation about The Floating Admiral: when I'm reading a cosy whodunit of this sort, I like knowing that it comes from a single mind; that the little twists, clues or red herrings have been strewn through the pages by an individual who charted the whole plot out in her head beforehand. The reading process then feels like an amiable battle of wits with the author (even when I'm too engrossed in the plot to stop and try to figure out the solution). With a really good mystery that has a fabulously unexpected denouement, one can go back to the beginning to work out how the deception was perpetrated; one can smile at a throwaway sentence that becomes significant in retrospect, or admire the author's cleverness in introducing an irrelevant but blindsiding sub-plot.

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ith The Floating Admiral, this process is never as intense and personal because you're constantly aware that the writers saddled with the later chapters had to not just build on an existing story but also work towards a solution that was consistent with details thought up by other people. As Sayers explains in the book's Introduction, "Each writer was bound to deal faithfully with all the difficulties left for his consideration by his predecessors."

Sayers herself does quite well (she wrote the seventh chapter and provided an elaborate solution), but on the whole things get heavy-handed halfway through. In Ronald Knox's tedious chapter "Thirty Nine Articles of Doubt", Inspector Rudge, retiring for the night, makes a long list of ideas he has to follow up on. This is overkill – one gets the impression that Knox is simply trying to tabulate all the information accumulated thus far. The Floating Admiral is a notable curio – a literary experiment that should be of value to the aspiring detective-story writer, or to someone with special interest in the methods of the crime novelists of the time. But whether it works as a murder mystery in its own right is debatable.

P.S. It's no surprise that the book's new reissue highlights Agatha Christie's name on the cover, even though her contribution is barely 10 pages. But I admit to feeling tickled that Christie's proposed solution (which is notably different from most of the others) came close to my own ideas about the crime. I also got some amusement from the thought that just two years after participating in this venture, she wrote a book (Murder on the Orient Express) in which the killing was jointly done by 12 people!

 
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