Patrick Quentin was one of the Forgotten Authors featured at Crimefest last week, and Quentin, alias Q. Patrick, alias Jonathan Stagge, is one of the most interesting of all pseudonymous American crime writers, not least because, in total, those names concealed not just one identity, but four. The most notable were Richard Webb and Hugh Wheeler. They started a series under the Quentin name featuring Peter Duluth, and my Forgotten Book for today, Puzzle for Fiends, a Duluth story.
The premise is super. After a brief prologue in which Peter waves off his new wife Iris at an airfield, the picture transforms when he wakes up after an accident, suffering from amnesia. He is surrounded by people who claim to be family members or associates and who say that he is the wealthy Gordon Renton Friend the Third. Whilst it's some consolation that his newly found wife, mother and sister are all very beautiful, he finds himself trapped in a nightmarish situation, from which escape seems impossible.
Of course, variations on this theme have often been used in mysteries - the Liam Neeson film Unknown is an excellent recent example. But Quentin handles it well, and it's no surprise that this book has been highly regarded, not least by Julian Symons. There are plenty of plot twists along the way - you can always rely on the PQ (or QP) franchise for tantalising mysteries.
And yet. I felt there were some unsatisfactory features of the second half of the story which meant that I wouldn't regard it as a classic, much as it entertained me. There is a puritanical cult called the Aurora League which features heavily in the plot, and although it is satirically and wittily described, I felt that its sheer absurdity militated against suspense. As Cornell Woolrich showed in nightmare-scenario books like Phantom Lady, the way to handle a story like this is to maintain tension throughout, and Puzzle for Fiends didn't quite manage this. All the same, it remains a lively and efficient thriller, still worth reading.