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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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.