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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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."