Going for the Golden: “The Floating Admiral”

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In 1930, a group of 26 detective fiction writers created their own special organization they called The Detection Club, which they used as a support group and a way to challenge each other in their writings. Among its most notable first members were Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, R. Austin Freeman, and the Baroness Emma Orcsy; G.K. Chesterton served as its first president. The group accepted only the best mystery writers and made each swear an oath, likely written by either Dorothy L. Sayers or G.K. Chesterton, to “play the game” honorably by being fair with her or his readers:

“Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?”

The members each agreed to obey “Knox’s Ten Commandments” (see below to read them) to define playing fair. Readers familiar with the Sherlock Holmes books and stories will recall that many times Holmes pulls the solution out of a hat without our having been given the same clues he has had access to. During the era between the two World Wars, the goal was to play a game with the readers, winning against them by providing all the clues but still keeping them from solving the mystery, so Knox’s Ten Commandments set out the guidelines for playing fair.

In 1931, 14 members of the Detection Club created a book using the round-robin style of each writing a chapter before passing the book on to the next writer, and they named it The Floating Admiral. Each author must make her or his chapter reasonable, and all but the first two had to submit their own solutions to the mystery in sealed envelopes, based upon what had been written up to their own chapters. In doing so, they had to deal with each clue and not ignore anything that didn’t fit into their conceived solutions. Dorothy L. Sayers added a prologue explaining how the book was created, and G.K. Chesterton wrote an introduction after the rest of the book had been written. The authors of the chapters, in order of authorship are as follows:

1. Canon Victor Whitechurch
2. G. D. H. Cole and Margaret Cole
3. Henry Wade
4. Agatha Christie
5. John Rhode
6. Milward Kennedy
7. Dorothy L. Sayers
8. Ronald Knox
9. Freeman Wills Crofts
10. Edgar Jepson
11. Clemence Dane
12. Anthony Berkeley

As chapter one of The Floating Admiral opens, we see local fisherman Neddy Ware at work in the river in the earliest hours of the morning when he spots a boat floating down the river, empty. However, when he snags the boat and pulls it into shore, Ware discovers the body of a man who has evidently been stabbed at the bottom of the boat, which he recognizes as belonging to the vicar. Next to the body is the vicar’s hat, and in the pocket of his great-coat is the evening newspaper. Rushing off to summon the police, Ware hears the church clock strike four. When Inspector Rudge arrives on the scene, Ware identifies the body as that of Admiral Penistone, a retired Navy officer who moved to their town of Whynmouth a month earlier.

Making a visit to the vicar, Rudge learns that Penistone and his niece, Elma Fitzgerald, had dinner with the vicar the previous night and rowed their own boat across the river to their own home. The vicar recalls leaving his hat where he had been viewing the pair make it safely home about 10:30, but he also recalls that the admiral did not wear the great-coat found on the body, which the coroner indicates was killed about midnight. Further, it appears by the lack of dew on the body that the admiral was killed elsewhere and moved to the boat sometime later. Why would the murderer do this? Then, as all his suspects rush to London before Rudge can make them stay, the inspector finds everyone suspicious and full of secrets.

The Floating Admiral has a reasonably interesting story, with each chapter offering an explanation of some detail from the earlier part of the book but adding new clues. But what makes this book worth reading is to see the way that each author interacts with the material previously presented. The authors work to blend the stories, while still maintaining their personal styles. One of the shortest chapters, at 25 minutes and 38 seconds, is also the liveliest, written by Agatha Christie, who has Rudge trying to interview the woman in charge of the Lord Marshall Hotel, where Arthur Holland, fiancé of Elma Fitzgerald, spent the night of the murder. The woman talks so volubly that the inspector can’t get a word in edgewise, and when he manages to insert a question while the talkative gossip takes a breath, she accuses him of skipping ahead of the story and facts. This chapter is very typical of Christie’s style and a lot of fun. On the other hand, Ronald Knox’s chapter, at one hour and 14 minutes the longest chapter in the book proper, gets tedious, as Rudge makes a list of 39 questions about the case and his analysis of each one.

The Floating Admiral concludes with a clever solution, written by Anthony Berkeley, who was the key figure in founding the Detection Club. I was intrigued to see the creative way Berkeley managed to put together the wide variety of clues and assemble a fully comprehensive answer to each of the questions posed throughout the course of the book. It must have taken real skill to put all this together so ably.

Then, after the official book concludes, we get to see the solutions posited in those sealed envelopes by each of the authors who contributed to the collection. Some come across as a little boring, but then we get to Agatha Christie’s, which made me laugh out loud.

David Timson performs the audio edition of this book. He helps to keep the book moving as a unified whole. I suspect that the book would not be nearly as effective read on one’s own, but with Timson’s narration, we do see the book as more unified than not. His voice also keeps the book interesting.

Though parts of The Floating Admiral get a little boring, the book was well worth reading and kept my interest for the most part. I thought the premise itself made the book worth listening to. But rating it solely on the quality of the book itself, I give the book three stars.

Ronald “Knox’s Ten Commandments”

[The detective novel] must have as its main interest the unravelling of a mystery; a mystery whose elements are clearly presented to the reader at an early stage in the proceedings, and whose nature is such as to arouse curiosity, a curiosity which is gratified at the end.

1. The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.

2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.

3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.

4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.

5. No Chinaman must figure in the story. [ Per Wikipedia: The “No Chinaman rule” was a reaction to, and criticism of, racial cliches prevalent in 1920’s English writing. Knox explained “I see no reason in the nature of things why a Chinaman should spoil a detective story. But as a matter of fact, if you are turning over the pages of an unknown romance in a bookstore, and come across some mention of the narrow, slit-like eyes of Chin Loo, avoid that story; it is bad.” — Dover, J. K. Van (2010). Making the Detective Story American: Biggers, Van Dine and Hammett and the Turning Point of the Genre, 1925–1930. No Chinaman, Ethnicity and the Dectective in the 1920’s: McFarland. p. 66. ISBN 9780786456895. Retrieved 6 December 2017.]

6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.

7. The detective must not himself commit the crime.

8. The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.

9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.

10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

To purchase this book for yourself, click here on Amazon.

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