The Magazine

Too Many Cooks

The enduring appeal of group mystery novels.

Dec 17, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 14 • By JON L. BREEN
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Yeats Is Dead!
A Mystery by 15 Irish Writers
edited by Joseph O'Connor
Knopf, 256 pp., $23

Naked Came the Phoenix
edited by Marcia Talley
Minotaur, 320 pp., $24.95

Natural Suspect
devised by William Bernhardt
Ballantine, 192 pp., $23.95

A MULTIPLE-AUTHOR NOVEL is the equivalent of an old-time theatrical benefit: There's little or no money for the performers, but they are honored by being chosen to participate. Usually, it's in a good cause: a charity or a professional organization. The end product is almost always ephemeral, but a sense of professional pride (and the knowledge that one's peers are watching) demands a good performance.

Literary writers as high-toned as Henry James--one among the dozen authors who produced "The Whole Family" in 1908--have participated in group novels, passing the baton of the tale from writer to writer, like runners in a relay race. But the mystery and detective genre has produced the majority of such works.

The earliest example is "Behind the Screen" (1930), a six-part serial written as a listener contest for the BBC by members of Great Britain's Detection Club. At the time, midway through the Golden Age of Detection, the pure clues-on-the-table detective story was at its apex. The first three writers--Hugh Walpole, Agatha Christie, and Dorothy L. Sayers--set the problem of the murder of a family's sinister boarder, while the last three--Anthony Berkeley, E.C. Bentley, and Ronald Knox--jointly worked out a solution. In 1931 came a longer serial, "The Scoop," with the plotting done in committee by Sayers, Christie, Bentley, Berkeley, Freeman Wills Crofts, and Clemence Dane. (First printed in the BBC journal "The Listener," the two serials were brought together in book form in 1983.)

The Detection Club took on a greater challenge in "The Floating Admiral" (1932), which removed the safety net of collaborative plotting for pure authorial wing-walking. An atmospheric prologue by the club's president, G.K. Chesterton, introduced things--after which Victor L. Whitechurch's opening chapter set the murdered Admiral Penistone adrift on the River Whyn in the local vicar's boat. Eleven chapters followed, including Berkeley's necessarily lengthy windup, called "Clearing Up the Mess."

The rules of "The Floating Admiral"'s game were daunting. While the contributors had the fun of adding complications for subsequent writers to deal with, each author also had to have a specific, reasoned solution in mind for the novel at the point at which he left it. In a forty-five-page appendix, a fascinating exposition of classical detective writers' minds at work, they explained their planned conclusions in sections ranging from twenty-two pages (Sayers) to a paragraph (Edgar Jepson).

The next Detection Club collaboration, "Ask a Policeman" (1933), played a different game. John Rhode propounded a puzzle, which was presented to four writers for their respective sleuths to solve. By an "awkward blunder" that is obviously deliberate, each writer was asked for the conclusions of another writer's character--thus Berkeley wrote of Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey, Sayers of Berkeley's Roger Sheringham, Helen Simpson of Gladys Mitchell's Mrs. Bradley, and Mitchell of Simpson's Sir John Saumarez. Subsequent Detection Club group efforts--"Crime on the Coast" and "No Flowers by Request"--appeared as newspaper serials in 1953 and 1954. John Dickson Carr led off the former, while the latter included a chapter by Sayers, even though she had long since deserted Lord Peter for religious drama and Dante translation.

THE FIRST American group mystery, "The President's Mystery Story" (1935), addressed a problem posed by Franklin D. Roosevelt to Liberty magazine editor Fulton Oursler: "How can a man disappear with five million dollars in any negotiable form and not be traced?" Oursler wrote a synopsis with an elaborate solution and asked six popular writers--one of them himself under his mystery-writing pseudonym Anthony Abbot--to turn it into a group novel. The set framework took away the fun of laying booby traps for the next performer, but they could still compete on style. The best remembered of the participants was S.S. Van Dine, creator of Philo Vance. (The book was adapted into a 1936 film, "The President's Mystery," one of whose screenwriters was Nathanael West. A 1967 reprint substitutes for Oursler's preface a more informative introduction by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and appends an exceedingly clever chapter in which Erle Stanley Gardner adds Perry Mason to the mix.)