“The Floating Admiral” by The Detection Club (1931)

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“Three glimpses through the rolling smoke of opium, three stories that still hover about a squalid opium joint in Hong Kong, might very well at this distance of time be dismissed as pipe dreams.”

Have you ever played Consequences? It’s that quaint party game where people write a sentence of a story, pass it on, and the next person has to continue the story and so on through as many players are there are. It’s quite good fun, and usually ends up with some ludicrous stories at the end. Now imagine doing that with a whole book. What if you could get the best writers of the age to work together and pen a single story? Well, satisfyingly, it’s already been done.

The Detection Club is a group of detective fiction writers. Formed in 1930 and still running today, almost every notable crime writer has found their way into the illustrious circle. It seems that they decided to pool their resources and so started writing together. However, the way they did it was much in the manner of Consequences. Each writer penned a different chapter, having to follow on from what the previous writer had said in theirs. Some of the contributors are well known – G. K. Chesterton, Anthony Berkley, Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie – while others such as Henry Wade and Edgar Jepson have fallen to the wayside with time and do not have such a great reputation now. Surprisingly, given their differing styles and the very nature of the challenge, the whole thing works. Here’s what’s going on…

Local fisherman Neddy Ware sets out in the early hours of the morning to the River Whyn, determined as usual that that’s the best time to land some fish. However, he gets more than he bargains for, when a rowing boat floats past him. He realises that it’s the Vicar’s boat and then, a moment later, there’s a body sprawled in the bottom of it; the murdered figure of Admiral Penistone. Ware tethers the boat immediately reports it to the police. Soon Inspector Rudge is on the case, but things are definiely not as smooth-sailing as the aforementioned boat.

For a start, every suspect has suddenly been called away to London on urgent business before they can be detained, leaving Rudge to learn the local gossip regarding the Admiral through busybody servants and nosy porters. The Vicar seems to know more than he’s letting on, but hides behind the excuse of “secrets of the confessional”. It seems impossible that the Admiral should be there at all, and everyone’s evidence contradicts, but as the suspects return one by one, Rudge begins to piece together what’s happened.

According to the prologue by Sayers, each writer had to write their chapter with a solution in mind, but also making use of all the clues, hints and facts mentioned in the previous chapters. Anthony Berkley, who has the unenviable task of writing the final chapter calls it “Clearing up the Mess”, which seems about right. And yet, somehow, the whole thing works very well. I’ve only read full books by three of the contributors, so I cannot fully assess their styles, but of the ones I know, you can almost tell. The characters and information come naturally, but it doesn’t stop the writers from adding in information that has merely been unmentioned up until they get a chance to speak. For example, one chapter suddenly mentions that two minor characters are actually related, and while there’s been no evidence of this so far, there’s also nothing saying it’s not possible.

It’s actually a really fascinating conceit, and deftly shows how talented these writers all were independently of one another that when they came together, they could still manage to “solve” a crime with only half the story. At the appendix at the end of the book, each writer also gets a chance to explain the solution they were aiming for, giving a great example, as seen in The Poisoned Chocolates Case, of how facts can be distorted and how odd it is to take the protagonist’s theory as sacrosanct. Had any chapter been the final one, there’s a very different solution up for grabs.

The Detection Club actually did a few of these, but this was the only one that Agatha Christie joined in with, so it’s naturally the one I was drawn to. Perhaps I’ll return to the others once I’ve become more familiar with their work, but this is a must for any lovers of classic detective fiction.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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“Antidote To Venom” by Freeman Wills Croft (1938)

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antidote“George Surridge entered his study shortly before seven on a cold night in mid October.”

Let’s just dive right in, shall we? In Antidote to Venom, Freeman Wills Crofts treats us to a crime novel with a difference. This is a murder mystery unlike any other I’ve read, given that it shows the other side of the story. Here, there is no question of “whodunnit” – we know, immediately. But Crofts is far more wily than that, and his story takes you along routes you never thought possible.

George Surridge is the director of Birmington Zoo, one of the most successful zoos in the UK, but he’s finding things difficult of late. He and his wife are barely speaking, there’s a disease bringing down many of the monkeys, and his lack of money is becoming increasingly problematic. Plus, he’s just started an affair with Nancy, a woman he meets at the zoo one day and is instantly besotted with. George will come into money when his aunt dies, since he is the sole remaining family member, but while his aunt is in ill health, she seems set to hang around. George begins to wonder if he could help hurry things along.

When the aunt is dead, however, the money is not forthcoming. It turns out that the solicitor of the estate, David Capper, has gambled it all away on the stocks. But he in turn is due a large inheritance from his uncle Mr Burnaby, another elderly figure still holding on. Burnaby has long been studying the snakes of Birmington Zoo, but recent events have conspired to mean George has taken away the scientist’s access to the reptiles. Capper, though, has a plan, and if George is willing to help him, they can commit a foul crime and soon be rolling in money. All George has to do is steal one of his own snakes…

The book can roughly be divided into two halves. In the first half, we hear the story from George’s point of view. As I said, there is no doubt that he is the criminal that in any ordinary murder mystery would be revealed at the end. Having it this way round, however, means we get to witness his true motives, and perhaps even develop a sympathy for him. The second half of the book follows the police as they try to work out how Burnaby died. It appears to have been a snake bite, but how did he get hold of a snake?

This “inverted” mystery makes for a hugely compelling read. As George spirals into a form of madness, obsessing over money and his new mistress, we are kept feeling tense as the noose tightens and a plan that at first seemed watertight might now be leaking. George, however, is a sympathetic character, and despite what he does, you can’t help but be rooting for him, if only a little. It’s also fascinating to see the police reach the conclusions that we already know. In your average Christie, we only find out the details in the final chapter. Here, we’ve already seen them. It’s a whole different kind of tension. The question is one more of “how” than “who”.

I’d never heard of Crofts before, and his is another book published in the British Library Crime Classics series. They seem to be specialising in authors whose work has long-since disappeared. Indeed, this is the first reprint of this book in several decades. I’ve read one from this line already, and there’s another on my shelf, but they’re all proof that the ‘Golden Age of murder’ was more than just Christie and Marsh. This is one of the smartest and most interesting books I’ve read all year, and a total must-read for anyone who enjoys a murder but is looking for something a bit different.