this is the 122nd in my series of posts on forgotten or seldom read books
Ask A Policeman by The Detection Club, © 1933 multiple author mystery
- A month ago Rick reviewed The Floating Admiral, the Detection Club’s 1931 first go at a collaborative mystery novel. I decided to reread it (after 30-odd years) and concluded it was a much more muddled mess than Rick indicated. This led me to revisit their second try at it, Ask a Policeman, from 1933; herewith a review.
Ask a Policeman is a big improvement over The Floating Admiral – fewer cooks to spoil the broth (six authors vs. thirteen in Admiral), and evidently a clear recipe for them to follow was agreed to beforehand. John Rhode sets up the murder of a thoroughly unsavory press baron (think W.R. Hearst, or Chas. F. Kane; or for you Brits, Robert Maxwell) at his country home, Hursley Lodge. He is killed in his study by a single bullet – an odd small caliber – to the head. Rhode provides a trio of high profile suspects, all milling about the place, all with motives: an Archbishop, a high-ranking M.P., and the number two man at Scotland Yard. Throw in the victim’s unscrupulous private secretary, a mystery woman, and the usual panoply of servants and you’ve got your classic country house murder mess.
In a fantasyland move that is pure Golden Age, the Home Secretary decides to put the C.I.D. on hold and instead send in four prominent amateur sleuths to investigate. This gives the Various Hands from the Detection Club the opportunity to do their stuff in the middle third of the book. It is clear that the four were working from a fairly specific plan to stick to the material in Rhode’s problem, and sworn not to bring in waves of new characters & back story, as happened in Admiral, making hash of same. However, in a twist, the authors are assigned to write about each other’s sleuths. Thus Helen Simpson writes about Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs. Bradley, and Mitchell about Simpson’s Sir John Saumarez; Dorothy Sayers handles Anthony Berkeley’s Roger Sheringham, and Berkeley returns the favor by presenting Lord Peter Wimsey’s investigation.
This setup is obviously designed to give the writers a chance to do some good-natured spoofing of their colleagues’ pet detectives. I imagine I missed a good bit of it, but Berkeley’s take on Wimsey is a real treat – spot on, but just enough over-the-top to qualify as inspired parody; for me it’s the high point of the book.
By a remarkable coincidence – wink, wink, nudge, nudge – each of the detectives comes up with a different murderer!
It’s left to Milward Kennedy to sort it all out in the final chapter, and he does so cleverly. Instead of bringing in yet another brilliant amateur, or finally sending in the Yard, he hands the four sleuths’ reports over to a couple of ordinary workaday bureaucrats in the Home Secretary’s office. They subject the muddle of conflicting evidence and theories to the routine analytical procedures they apply to the draft white papers they deal with daily and come up with the true solution (which hinges on the title of the book).
Overall, no surprise, there are no brilliant plot twists or Aha! moments in Ask a Policeman. It’s more a novelty than a classic, but it’s a solid piece of collaborative fiction, not all over the place like The Floating Admiral, and a fun read for Golden Age fans.
— Art Scott
Thanks, Art, I appreciate your review. Obviously, I was too kind in my own.
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The rest of the Friday Forgotten Book posts
can be found at Patti Abbott’s fine blog Pattinase