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The Floating Admiral: Book review

Written By Franklin V on Friday, November 18, 2011 | 7:45 PM

Book:The Floating Admiral 
Authored By: The Detection Club 
Publisher: Hachette 
Pages; Price: 310 pages; Rs 395


You've seen them at bookstores and lending libraries - cruising the aisles with looks of drooly anticipation and clutching novels featuring creative corpses, astute detectives and mysterious tropical poisons. 

That these readers need their fix of detective paperbacks is immediately apparent. For mystery novels do more than tell a story. They also throw up enjoyable challenges - allowing keen-eyed connoisseurs to spot sequins in the flowerbed, catch significant remarks or follow an obscure trail of clues. And then, of course, announce with aplomb, "Oh I solved the mystery on Page 126." All this without having to sift through malodorous garbage cans, step into morgues, or look into cold eyes of a killer. 

For readers of this ilk, The Floating Admiral is a veritable feast. For this good old-fashioned mystery - none of your new-fangled serial killers, gang executions or random acts of violence here - has got not one, but nine mind-boggling solutions. But then, the book has been written by not one but 13 devious minds, including Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and GK Chesterton. 

The Floating Admiral was first published 80 years ago. It is the extraordinary creation of The Detection Club, an association of detective fiction writers in Great Britain that existed in the 1930s "chiefly for the purpose of eating dinners together at suitable intervals and of talking illimitable shop". Perhaps the writers started suffering from post-prandial indigestion. Or perhaps they got tired of hearing real-life policemen disparage the deeds of their paperback sleuths: "The author knows beforehand who did the job and the great detective has only to pick up the clues that are laid down for him." At any rate, the members of The Detection Club devised a game for themselves. 

Thirteen members decided to participate and each agreed to write one chapter of a particular mystery novel. "Here the problem was made to approach as closely as possible to a problem of real detection, " writes Dorothy Sayers in the introduction. "Each contributor tackled the mystery presented to him in the preceding chapters without having the slightest idea what solution or solutions the previous author had in mind.

The writers had to follow two rules: Firstly, each writer had to construct his or her chapter with a definite solution in mind. Secondly, each writer inherited the clues and complications created in the earlier chapters and had to work with them. The result is a surprisingly coherent mystery novel, although much untidier and life-like than the work of a single writer. 

The book begins with an ambiguous prologue by GK Chesterton, set in an opium-saturated Hong Kong alley. So we have to wait for Chapter One to get our first proper glimpse of the floating admiral bobbing about in the vicar's boat, early one morning, on the River Whyn near the village of Lingham. "A man of about sixty, with iron-grey hair, moustache and closecropped pointed beard, dark eyes open in a fixed stare. He was clad in evening dress clothes and brown overcoat, the latter open at the front and exposing a white shirt-front stained with blood, " writes Canon Victor Whitechurch, who is responsible for outlining the central mysteries of the novel: Who killed Admiral Penistone? Why was he found floating in the vicar's boat? 

This tricky parcel is then passed on to writers GDH and M Cole, to fill in a few details, introduce new suspects and, of course, break the news to friends and family. In the process Inspector Rudge encounters the shocked vicar, Mr Mount, the bleating butler Emery, the stolid and indifferent niece, Elma Fitzgerald, and her dashing and determined fiancĂȘ, Arthur Holland. Not to mention a rather strange will left by Elma's father

The framework of the novel is in place by the time Henry Wade enters the fray allowing him to introduce various brain-scrambling complications. A missing lace dress. A French maid who suddenly quits without collecting her wages. Elma Fizgerald's erratic dressing habits. And most wicked of all, the strange tidal patterns that control the river. Indeed, one can fully sympathise with the underfed, overworked Inspector Rudge, who has "begun to regard the vagaries of this infernal River Whyn as a personal affront". 

In Chapter Four, Agatha Christie dispatches Inspector Rudge to visit to the local gossip, Mrs Davis, and extract juicy tidbits about the vicar's absconding wife, Elma Fitzgerald's unloverlike behaviour, the impoverished Sir Wilfred Denny and the Admiral's mysterious trip to Whynmouth on the night of his murder. At which point, the gallery of suspects seems to be filling faster that the Borivli local at rush hour. Under the watchful eye of John Rhode and Milward Kennedy, the Inspector starts to formulate a few theories, but admits "there are plenty of puzzles yet". Dorothy Sayers only adds to these. She fills us in on the Admiral's unfortunate past, introduces an empty file marked X, and provides details about Elma's missing brother Walter. "Speaking for myself, I may say that the helpless bewilderment into which I was plunged on receipt of Mr Milward Kennedy's little bunch of brainteasers was apparently fully equalled by the hideous sense of bafflement which overcame Father Ronald Knox when having, as I fondly imagined, cleared up much that was obscure, handed the problem on to him, " Sayers wrote later. 

Many dramatic revelations follow - as Freeman Wills Croft and Edgar Jepson allow Inspector Rudge to make some triumphant discoveries. But Clemence Dane, who writes the last but one chapter, admits that "I am, frankly, in a complete muddle as to what has happened, and have tried to write a chapter that anybody can use to prove anything they like." So it is left to Anthony Berkeley to clear up the mess and identify the official killer.
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