Monday, June 18, 2012

The Round Robin Murders: The Floating Admiral (1931) and Double Death (1939)

The Floating Admiral, a Round Robin novel by England's Detection Club--that august organization of the elite of (mostly) British crime writers--has been reprinted in England--on the strength, one surmises, of participant Agatha Christie's name.

the new edition mentions merely three
of the many once prominent contributors
Although the contribution Agatha Christie made to The Floating Admiral is a chapter of eight pages (in my 1979 Gregg Press edition)--merely 3% of the book--Christie is given top billing by the publisher, with only Dorothy L. Sayers and G. K. Chesterton (the latter of whom contributed, by his own admission, a strictly ornamental prologue of five pages) snagging mentions by name, in much smaller letters.  This hardly is fair to the other authors, many of whom made more significant contributions than Christie and Chesterton, but such are the vagaries of fame and the publishing biz!

It is my view that detective novel, requiring  the most scrupulous planning, is not a form really receptive to the round robin treatment.

Exhibit A in my argument: The Floating Admiral.

Overloaded with complications from too many eager hands, The Floating Admiral begins to take on water and sink well before reaching its final destination (its concluding chapter, by Anthony Berkeley, sadly is all too accurately entitled "Cleaning Up the Mess").

the original edition credits
all fourteen contributors--
though did too many hands sink the book?

Things go well enough for the first five chapters, with the authors (Canon Victor L. Whitechurch, G. D. H. and Margaret Cole, Henry Wade, Agatha Christie and John Rhode) refraining from over-elaboration.  Unfortunately the narrative enters choppy waters with Milward Kennedy's effort (his chapter, which follows John Rhode's "Inspector Rudge Begins to Form a Theory," is impertinently titled "Inspector Rudge Thinks Better of It"; the good inspector--and Milward Kennedy--should have let well alone).

Dorothy L. Sayers tries to steer the now storm-tossed narrative on to a steadier course with a massive 37-page chapter, but she only makes things more confusing.

Clemence Dane complains in the notes to her Chapter Eleven, the penultimate chapter, that the mystery has become "quite inexplicable to me."  This reader had the same reaction.

The fun for me in The Floating Admiral is not, frankly, in reading a cogently plotted detective novel (this novel isn't one), but, rather, in discerning the different narrative approaches taken by the myriad authors in their chapters.

  • G. K. Chesterton writes rich prose.
  • Canon Whitechurch introduces a charming vicar.
  • Henry Wade develops credible, appealing relationships among his policemen.
  • Agatha Christie introduces a garrulous and gossipy old lady innkeeeper.
  • John Rhode discusses tidal movements (the admiral was floating after all) and sympathetically expands the role of the retired petty officer, Neddy Ware.
  • Milward Kennedy overcomplicates the story, as does Dorothy L. Sayers (the ingenious Sayers should have been given the opening chapter--she and Kennedy both clearly wanted it for themselves).
  • Ronald Knox makes a long list.  
  • Freeman Wills Crofts checks alibis and has his inspector travel by train.
The authors notes that follow the chapters often are fascinating.  In the notes to his chapter, Ronald Knox amusingly writes:

I once laid it down that no Chinaman should appear in a detective story.  I feel inclined to extend the rule so as to apply to residents in China.  It appears that Admiral Penistone, Sir W. Denny, Walter Fitzgerald, Ware and Holland are all intimate with China, which seems overdoing it.

In her Guardian review of the new edition of The Floating Admiral, Laura Wilson deems Agatha Christie's proposed solution for the tale "as you would expect, the most ingenious" of all the solutions.

Well, I don't know.  Sometimes ingenuity is bought too dear, at the price of reason.  Certainly Christie's solution is more tricksy than, say, the solution proffered by John Rhode (without a complicated murder means, Rhode doesn't play to his greatest strength here). But it's also, in my view, patently absurd.

Here is how Christie envisioned the state of affairs in the Admiral's household (this is a SPOILER of sorts, though Christie's theory did not win acceptance with her colleagues):

Agatha Christie's proposed solution to
The Floating Admiral is rather a drag

The Admiral's niece is really the Admiral's nephew masquerading as the niece.

The clever chap has been doing this drag routine in his Uncle's household for weeks now, and is able to get away with it because he was "an actor at one time" (that convenient Golden Age crutch for the achievement of improbable master disguises) and because the Admiral has not seen the niece since she was child (he had seen the nephew more recently, however). The servants are fooled as well, as are the various beaux of the neighborhood, whom the nephew "takes an artistic pleasure" in vamping.[END SPOILER]

Ingenious or really kind of asinine?  Decide for yourself, but I know what I think.

On the whole, I prefer Double Death to The Floating Admiral.  The former is a round robin novel with chapters by Dorothy L. Sayers, Freeman Wills Crofts, Valentine Williams, F. Tennyson JesseAnthony Armstrong and David Hume that originally appeared, I believe, in the Sunday Chronicle in 1936 and was published in book form three years later by Gollancz. Although this novel sometimes is listed as a Detection Club novel it was never such, for of its authors only Sayers and Crofts in fact were members of the Detection Club.  It shows!

This wartime edition of Double Death 
deemed only Dorothy L. Sayers
worthy of mention by name
(Gollancz was her publisher!)

In her introductory chapter to Double Death, Sayers sets up a compelling domestic poisoning situation, followed by a death at a railway station, at the evocatively named town of Creepe.  Freeman Wills Crofts able expands this opening situation (he even provides a stunning map of Creepe and Creepe Station), as does Valentine Williams, thought the latter is more known for his "Clubfoot" thrillers than his (underrated) detective novels.

Unfortunately the other three authors are less concerned with mere matters of clueing, so that as a fair play mystery the tale ends up rather a bust (especially if you make the mistake of reading the ill-advised prologue, added later, which essentially gives away the solution of the novel).

Still, the writing and overall emotional situation remains compelling throughout Double Death, making the tale more of a success than The Floating Admiral in my view. It is worth noting in this context that in Double Death, written in the mid-thirties, all the authors concern themselves with maintaining "love interest," while in The Floating Admiral most all the characters are sticks in whom one could not be expected to take the slightest personal interest of any sort (admittedly one exception could have been SPOILER the putative vamping transvestite nephew, END SPOILER as envisioned by Agatha Christie).

Freeman Wills Crofts
 As the 1930s progressed the Golden Age detective novel began to put more emphasis on emotional situations and less on ratiocination.  It is this shift in emphasis that makes Double Death more interesting than The Floating Admiral, in my view.  Admiral depends for artistic success on detection and clueing and too many hands running about on deck finally sink the puzzle plot.

With less than half the people involved, Double Death might well have manged to work as a true fair play detective novel.  Certainly Sayers, Crofts and, to a lesser extent, Valentine Williams made a good start of it.  Unfortunately, Jesse, Armstrong and Hume did not follow through on what their predecessors began.

Dorothy L. Sayers and friend
I rather wish the novel could have been kept simply a collaboration between Sayers and Crofts.  The two authors corresponded over the opening chapter of Double Death in the spring of 1936, with Sayers requesting and Crofts supplying pertinent points of railway station detail.

Sayers had already written her own railway timetable novel, The Five Red Herrings (1931), as a sort of homage to Crofts' Sir John Magill's Last Journey (1930).  These two classic detective novels stand today as the ne plus ultra of railway timetable mysteries.  In the skillful hands of Sayers and Crofts, Double Death might well have become a classic product of the Golden Age.  As it is, at least it is a moderately entertaining read.

Note: For more on The Floating Admiral and Double Death and the participation of Freeman Wills Crofts in the writing of them, see Appendix III of my Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery: Cecil John Charles Street, Freeman Wills Crofts, Alfred Walter Stewart and the British Detective Novel, 1920-1961.  See here.


  1. I'm going to have to send you a copy of The President's Mystery Plot.. the complaints would be much the same...

  2. Yes I remember Double Death starting well but then tailing off a lot after the first few chapters. Been ages since I read The Floating Admiral so I can't remember if I prefer DD or that one, but I think it is more likely I preferred TFA.