Reviewed by Elaine Simpson-Long
In 1932 Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers collaborated with other writers, including G K Chesterton and Ronald Knox, Freeman Wills Crofts, Edgar Jepson, Clemence Dane and Anthony Berkeley on writing The Floating Admiral. An old sailor is found floating in a rowing boat with a stab wound in his chest. He is a local man and, at first sight, has no enemies. Inspector Rudge is called in to investigate and find himself in the middle of an intriguing case.
Each member of the Crime Club was asked to write a chapter which then had to be picked up and continued by the next writer and so on until the mystery was solved. I recently re-read this book after many years, my only memory of it being that it was fiendishly complicated and even when the solution was revealed I did not understand it. Well, the same thing happened but this time I could appreciate just how incredibly skilled the writers were and what attention to infinitesimal detail was shown in every line. At the end of the story each writer was asked to write their explanation of how, why and when and reveal their idea of the execution of the murder and its resolution. I was left gasping with admiration at the complexity and genius of it all.
Now some eighty years later current members of the Crime Club have written another detective story entitled The Sinking Admiral. Amongst those who have contributed are Martin Edwards, Stella Duffy, Peter Lovesey and Simon Brett.
The Admiral in this story is a pub in the Suffolk seaside village of Crabwell. The ‘Admiral’ is also the nickname of its landlord, Geoffrey Horatio Fitzsimmons as well as the name of the landlord’s dinghy. The pub is not doing well, there are few customers and it is threatened with closure. A television documentary team has arrived and are filming a Big Brother type feature which the locals are hoping will put them and the pub on the map and save the day.
Amy, the barmaid, though in reality the manager of the pub, mistrusts the producer Ben who she feels is deliberately going to misrepresent all that he sees in order to chase ratings. He is a womaniser who is trying to get her into bed and though she finds him attractive she resists: ‘One of the few maxims Amy followed in her life was to beware of charming men. In her experience they brought nothing but trouble’.
Meriel Dane, the queen of the pub’s kitchen is a different kettle of fish. A ‘woman of unbridled aspiration’ she has dreams of becoming the next Nigella and she regards her participation in Ben’s documentary as a kind of audition. ‘She leaned forward to the camera, fully aware of the amount of ample cleavage that the movement revealed. It was her view that there was a lack of glamour in the current state of television chefs’.
Sitting in the corner of the Admiral is the local GP, Alice who is living with her partner, Greta Knox, leader of the local Girl Guides. And in another corner, having a quiet drink is the vicar, Victoria, who nobody seems to much care for.
At the end of the evening the Admiral is in high spirits, holding forth to the assembled drinkers and offering drinks to everyone. ‘My fortune has turned around. Money worries will be at an end, family secrets will be revealed and the Admiral Byng will be saved. Here’s to the Last Hurrah!’
An hour later he is dead. Found face down in his sinking dinghy.
Two bumbling and hilarious police officers are sent along to investigate, more like Morecambe and Wise than Holmes and Watson or Alleyn and Fox and it is Amy who decides to sort out the mess herself. The only criticism I have of this excellent and fun book is the characterisation of these investigating officers – I think they were rather broadly drawn and obviously set up to provide humour. Don’t mistake me, they do, but I thought it was a little obvious.
No matter, this is a terrific book full of twists and turns and, as in all true and proper mysteries, everybody turns out to have a secret and a motive. I did guess Who Dun It about half way through but then I have probably read too many mysteries in my reading life.
The writing is seamless and the narrative flows beautifully. If you had not been told of the number of contributors the reader would have assumed it was one writer only. It is all hugely enjoyable and great fun.
I attended a seminar at the British Library a month or so ago, Bodies in the Library, at which most of the contributors to The Sinking Admiral were present and it was most entertaining to hear how they divvied up who was going to write what and how it was all going to end. I gather it involved a lot of good lunches and good wines……
Elaine Simpson-Long blogs at Random Jottings
Members of the Crime Club, The Sinking Admiral (Collins Crime Club, 2016). 978-0008100438, 352pp., hardback.
BUY The Sinking Admiral from the Book Depository.