The Floating Admiral by Agatha Christie, GK Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, and other members of the Detection Club

Floating Admiral cover

When I was in high school, I was part of a little group of friends who all wanted to be writers. In my sophomore year, we started an informal writing exercise, called The Notebook Game. Basically it would go like this: someone would start writing a story in a notebook (maybe three pages, just to set up the scene and some of the characters), and then give the notebook to someone else, who would continue the story. They would pass it to the next person, and on and on, with the notebook traveling around the group while we wrote the story collectively. There were rules: you could couldn’t hang on to the notebook for longer than a week, you were not allowed to kill off anyone else’s characters or have their characters have sudden unexplained changes of heart (unless the character’s creator gave you permission to do so) and if you wanted your character to make out with someone else’s character you needed the writer’s approval first. The notebook stories were usually abandoned after a few weeks (I remember one that was shared between five or six of us, and no one had any idea what sort of plot to do so we all kept introducing new characters whenever it was our turn to have the notebook), but there was one really successful notebook story that I did with two of my friends. It turned into this (really very dumb) fantasy story about warriors who could turn into dragons (but that ended up not being important) and my big character was a witch who was basically a carbon copy of the main character in this Morgan le Faye novel I was reading at the time, but the point was that she ended up fighting a war with the bad-boy dragon prince and at the end they made out and we were all very pleased with our fifteen-year-old selves. The point is that the stories we managed to create were pretty terrible and usually devolved into total messes, but it was really fun. And I still have the original notebooks that contained the dragon story (it got so long that we ran out of space in the six-subject one we started with, and had to buy a new one for the last few chapters).

I thought that this was something that was unique to my own clique of silly high school friends, so imagine my delight when I was browsing through a secondhand bookstore and found The Floating Admiral, which is the grown-up legitimate version of The Notebook Game.

This is a real thing: in the ’30’s, there was a club of detective novel writers that included Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, and GK Chesterton. They would get together and help each other with their plots and probably be unbearably clever and delightful, and then one day one of them said, “Hey, why don’t we all write a detective novel together?” What follows was probably a blast for everyone involved. The group decided on a scenario: one morning in a small seaside town, a dead man is found in a rowboat floating downstream. Each person (fourteen writers in all) writes one chapter of the mystery, with only the previous chapters to give them any indication of where the investigation is headed. It’s a really cool idea, if only because you have these professional detective writers analyzing the previous chapters and trying to figure out what the solution might be, and then adding their own twists. There’s one single solution at the end, and then as an epilogue all the authors write a little bit explaining what was going on in their chapter and what solution they were working towards at the time.

Does it sound like a complete and utter clusterfuck? It does, and it is. The big problem is not the different solutions the authors came up with in their chapters (in fact, they all arrived at almost the exact same conclusions about certain plot twists, apparently independently of each other, so their specific solutions to the mystery are pretty similar); the problem is that each author adds another twist to the mystery in his or her chapter. So not only do we have the admiral being murdered and put in a rowboat, but the rowboat has no traces of blood. And the river tides make the time of death difficult to pin down. And the rope attached to the boat had been cut twice. And no one can find the dress that the admiral’s niece was wearing on the night of the murder. And the niece has a suspicious finace who changes his alibi halfway through the book. And there’s a missing file in the admiral’s office. And a mysterious woman who no one recognized stopped at the Vicarage on the night of the murder. And…on and on and on, twist piled on top of twist. It gets so bad that poor Ronald A. Knox spent the entirety of his chapter having the detective write down all the questions surrounding the case – he ends up with thirty-nine goddamn things that need to be cleared up. Clemence Dane, who wrote the last chapter before the solution was revealed, throws up his hands and says in his explanatory epilogue, “I am, frankly, in a complete muddle as to what has happened, and have tried to write a chapter that anybody can use to prove anything they like.”

That, in a nutshell, describes the experience of reading this book. It must have been a fun experiment for the authors, but maybe once they were finished they should have done what my friends and I did in high school: congratulate yourselves on finishing a story, then hide the notebooks under your bed and hope your mom doesn’t find them.

Verdict: two out of five stars

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