The Magazine

Too Many Cooks

The enduring appeal of group mystery novels.

Dec 17, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 14 • By JON L. BREEN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.)

More recent examples include "The Perfect Murder" (1991), in which Jack Hitt introduces an unhappy husband who asks five mystery writers (Lawrence Block, Sarah Caudwell, Tony Hillerman, Peter Lovesey, and Donald E. Westlake) for advice on how to murder his wife. Though at least one feminist critic found a wife-murdering manual in questionable taste, it remains one of the best group mysteries.

But even the occasional successes in the genre don't seem to explain the recent flood of multiple-author mysteries. Three new ones have appeared in the past few months. All are from major publishers; all boast well-known contributors; and all at least partially benefit non-profit organizations. The first is the work mostly of mainstream Irish literary figures, the second of cozy female mystery writers, the third of American specialists in legal thrillers. One celebrates diversity of approaches; another aims for a more uniform style; and the third takes pride in not reading like a "various hands" work.

FIRST to appear was "Yeats Is Dead!," whose fifteen Irish authors were chosen for their variety: literary and popular writers, dramatists, screenwriters, a stand-up comedian, and even an Irish Times sportswriter. Their primary aim is humor, ranging from literary allusion to outright slapstick. Roddy Doyle, a Booker Award-winning novelist, begins well with a pair of enforcers reminiscent of "Pulp Fiction," and many pages later Frank McCourt, bestselling author of "Angela's Ashes," ties up the loose ends like a Restoration dramatist.

The MacGuffin (the sought-after object that propels the plot) is the manuscript of a lost novel by James Joyce. One of the most memorable characters is a senior policewoman, reminiscent of the one played by Helen Mirren on television's "Prime Suspect," who makes Holmesian observations based on the suspects' wardrobes. The whole enterprise, however, is more like an Elmore Leonard crime caper than a classical detective novel. The level of carnage is high. Though the book's proceeds benefit Amnesty International, one of whose tenets is the eradication of capital punishment, the Irish authors have no compunction about applying the death penalty to their characters.

THE THIRTEEN AUTHORS of "Naked Came the Phoenix" claim they took their rules from "The Floating Admiral": writing with a definite solution in mind, and not changing or ignoring any of the preceding writers' clues or plot elements. But the first must be taken on faith, for they were not required to provide individual solutions. The book, part of whose proceeds benefit breast-cancer research, takes its title from the best-known (though far from best) twentieth-century group novel, "Naked Came the Stranger" (1969), a tale of suburban sexuality written under the group pseudonym "Penelope Ashe" by twenty-five journalists who sought bestsellerdom with a deliberately meretricious piece of soft-core porn. The years since have brought homage in the form of "Naked Came the Manatee" (1996), a Floridian thriller whose contributors included Elmore Leonard, Edna Buchanan, and Carl Hiaasen, and such small-press products as "Naked Came the Farmer" (1998) and "Naked Came the Plowman" (1999).

This new "Naked Came" has humorous touches, but it generally plays the story straight. Nevada Barr's opening chapter introduces a large cast of characters at a luxurious Virginia health spa, centering on Caroline Blessing, a congressman's wife, and her recently widowed mother, Hilda Finch. Subsequent writers add complications, beginning with the mud-bath murder of the spa's owner. Laurie R. King does wrap-up honors, a harder job than McCourt's: The strict structure of a whodunit makes the job tougher than a loose, Leonard-style crime comedy. Though she manages to tie up the loose ends, the recourse to multiple murderers renders the novel less than satisfactory as a detective puzzle.

Like theatrical benefits, group novels have an advertising function. Which of these performers would you come back to enjoy at greater length in his own show? The only real loser is J.D. Robb, whose second chapter offers miniseries prose and tin-eared dialogue. Nancy Pickard, Faye Kellerman, and Anne Perry prove as readable and professional as one would expect, but two contributors outshine the rest: Lisa Scottoline, whose introduction of police detective Vince Toscana in the fourth chapter allows the book to achieve belated lift-off, and Val McDermid, whose female medical examiner, looking over a corpse found in a pool of nail polish, says, "Bodies, I don't mind. But I've always thought cosmetics were more trouble than they were worth."

THE THIRD RECENT multiple-author mystery, "Natural Suspect," also benefits a charity (the Nature Conservancy), but it doesn't say which authors wrote which chapters. The only mystery precedent I can find is "The Marble Forest" (1951), written under the name "Theo Durrant" by a dozen members of the Mystery Writers of America's Northern California chapter, among whom was longtime New York Times mystery critic Anthony Boucher.

Though left to guess at the contributions of John Katzenbach, John Lescroart, Philip Margolin, Michael Palmer, and Lisa Scottoline, we are told that William Bernhardt wrote the first chapter, introducing in comic style an extremely dysfunctional family. When patriarch Arthur Hightower's body is found in the family freezer, alcoholic widow Julia goes on trial in a New York court for his blunt-instrument murder. In a typical legal-mystery-novel complication, the defense attorney opposes her former lover, appearing for the prosecution. Presiding, in a joke for old movie fans, is Judge Hardy. The more outlandish characters include a giant rabbit who is taken for walks like a dog and a villain who disguises himself as a clown and a female Foot Locker employee. It lacks the highbrow touches of "Yeats Is Dead!" and the detection of "Naked Came the Phoenix," but "Natural Suspect," with its consistently comic tone, is the best of the 2001 crop.

WHEN THEY WORK, group novels provide sophisticated insights into the craft of storytelling. They are fiercely complicated, depending on chapter-ending cliffhangers and coincidental interlocking of the characters' lives, often including impersonation and surprises of parentage and kinship. But it is paradoxically easy to keep track of the plots since so many contributors feel obliged to get their bearings by reprising what has gone before. The challenges the writers present one another recall a short-lived 1939-1940 radio show called "Author, Author" (anchored each week by the pair of authors who wrote under the name Ellery Queen), in which a group of literary panelists would be presented with various incongruous situations--such as "Why does a jewelry store owner sell a $500 watch to an unfamiliar customer for a dollar?"--and then draw on their structural wizardry to explain it.

Maybe the best theatrical comparison is the English Christmas pantomime: not Shakespeare, not Shaw, but ideal for its season. Fun is had by all, but the actors may be having an even better time than the audience.

The winner of two Edgar awards, Jon L. Breen is the author of six mystery novels and writes the "Jury Box" column in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.