The Floating Admiral by Certain Members of the Detection Club: B-

TheFloatingAdmiralBook description:
In 1932, thirteen members of London’s exclusive Detection Club—including notables like Dorothy L. Sayers, G. K. Chesteron, and Agatha Christie—decided to undertake a challenging project. As Sayers writes in her introduction, “The problem was made to approach as closely as possible to a problem of real detection. Except in the case of Mr. Chesteron’s picturesque Prologue, which was written last, each contributor tackled the mystery presented to him in the preceding chapters without having the slightest idea what solution or solutions the previous authors had in mind.” Various rules were imposed upon the authors to insure they dealt fairly with the difficulties left by their predecessors, and each author was required to submit his own proposed solution of the mystery (collected in an appendix). The end product was the story of the River Whyn, which “bore so peacefully between its flowery banks the body of the floating admiral.”

When the body of retired Admiral Penistone (it took me ages to stop giggling at that name) is found drifting along the River Whyn in the vicar’s boat, the investigation, led by Inspector Rudge, focuses primarily on his tough-as-nails niece, her fiancé turned sudden husband, and a disgraceful incident earlier in the Admiral’s military career. Each of the thirteen writers throws in some other random clues as well, be they footprints, missing documents, possible forgeries, et cetera.

The result is surprisingly coherent for something with so many collaborators. Occasionally, there’s a bit of a jolt as a new hand takes over and bends events to their own interpretation, but it’s usually not too jarring (see next paragraph for an exception). One, perhaps unintended, result is that there’s more of an emphasis on explaining the meaning of strange clues than on crafting memorable characters. Rudge’s personality changes a bit in early chapters and eventually settles on simply bland. The author who finally brings a human touch to the story is Dorothy L. Sayers; I’d say her chapter’s the best of the lot and does the most to set the mystery on its ultimate path.

While most transitions are relatively seamless, one particular author, Milward Kennedy, seemingly sets out with the aim to correct what has gone before. Under his stewardship, Rudge doubts testimony he’d previously accepted and suddenly realizes, “Hey, I have a constable and a sergeant sitting around back at the boathouse. Maybe they could do something instead of me running all over the place myself.” It’s a necessary redirection, but the execution is rather awkward.

The lengthy final chapter offers a convoluted explanation for all that has gone before. It’s not really a satisfying ending—I can’t decide whether it’s ingenious or just silly—but it hangs together, at least, which is to be admired.

As a mystery and a novel, The Floating Admiral is merely okay. As an experiment, though, it’s a qualified success.

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