Friday 8 February 2008

Ask a Policeman

Ask a Policeman, which I mentioned yesterday, was not the first ‘collective’ detective story produced by members of the Detection Club, nor was it the last. The Scoop and Behind the Screen were serials initially written for radio, by collaborators who included Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, E.C. Bentley and Anthony Berkeley. The stories were not published in book form until the 1980s. The Floating Admiral, however, was first published in 1933 and it is widely regarded as the best example of this kind of joint effort. A complicated puzzle (that master of paradox, G.K.Chesterton was one of those who contributed to its construction) is ultimately resolved by the ingenious mind of Anthony Berkeley.

The success of The Floating Admiral in particular must have encouraged Club members to produce a follow-up. It opens with an exchange of letters between Milward Kennedy (an interesting writer, now more or less forgotten) and John Rhode, in which Kennedy proposes the title Ask a Policeman and Rhode offers a plot with ‘a choice of many Policemen to interrogate as to its solution.’ He adds that ‘writing detective stories is just like any other vice. The deed is done without one’s having any clear knowledge of the temptation which led up to it.’

Rhode’s ‘Death at Hursley Lodge’ poses the problem to be solved (a map of the crime scene is also supplied) and Kennedy then invites fellow Club members to solve it – but not with their usual detective. So Dorothy L. Sayers is asked to explain how Roger Sheringham (Berkeley’s regular sleuth) would tackle the mystery and Berkeley is asked for Lord Peter Wimsey’s take on it. Helen Simpson and Gladys Mitchell also swap their usual sleuths, Sir John Saumarez and Mrs Bradley. They come up with four different solutions before Kennedy (on his own admission, not playing entirely fair) comes up with ‘the Correct Answer.’

Any book written in this way will almost inevitably have inconsistencies of style and characterisation. But with Ask a Policeman, as with The Floating Admiral, I don’t think the failings detract from the charm of a project that was pleasantly eccentric and very much in keeping with the spirit of detective fiction between the two world wars.


Anonymous said...

Just for the record, Chesterton, the president of the Detection Club, wrote a Prologue to "The Floating Admiral" but did not contribute to the story proper.
~ Gramps

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Gramps. Chesterton's prologue is called 'The Three Pipe Dreams' and the locale is Hong Kong - rather exotic, compared to the later contributions, as I recall.