The members of that august body known as The Detection Club, a Who's Who of British Golden Age mystery writers, produced a number of experimental collaborations that, nearly a century later, are still practically unique in the genre's history – which too often get dismissed as mere trifles or curiosities. Sure, the Detection Club collaborations never produced a genuine genre classic, but their experiments are not entirely without merit or interest.
The Floating Admiral (1931) is a round-robin mystery novel written by no less than thirteen different authors with each one, like a potluck luncheon, bringing something new and unexpected to the story. An experiment that should have ended in an unmitigated disaster had it not been for Anthony Berkeley's last chapter, "Cleaning Up the Mess," which made it appear as if they had planned the whole thing from the beginning. No mean feat! Ask a Policeman (1933) is not only one of those exceedingly rare crossovers, but a very unique type of crossover in which the collaborating writers exchanged their series-detective characters. So you have Berkeley taking on Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey and Sayers getting to work with Berkeley's Roger Sheringham. And they're all investigating the same murder! Something that was never done before or since. Not in our genre, anyway.
Not as experimental, but no less fascinating, is The Anatomy of Murder (1936). A collection of five true crime essays, penned by the likes of Berkeley, Sayers and E.R. Punshon, who shine their light on some infamous murderers and murder cases – such as Henri Landru and the Julia Wallace murder case. So you basically get a handful of mystery novelists who play armchair investigative journalists with real-life murder cases. Funnily enough, the Detection Club published a collection of short stories in which the roles are reversed with a former policeman nipping at their heels!
Martin Edwards said Six Against the Yard (1936) is an ingenious and perhaps unique "variation on the conventional detective fiction anthology" with a half-a-dozen stories in which club members present their "potentially foolproof murders," but each chapter is followed by an analysis from ex-Superintendent Cornish of Scotland Yard. And it's his task to expose "the flaws in the criminal scheme" presented to him. A true battle-of-wits pitting theory against practice! Yes, I'll be keeping score throughout the review.
Margery Allingham is the first in line to take a crack at devising the perfect murder with "It Didn't Work Out," a theatrical mystery of sorts, in which she kind of casts herself in the role of murderer, but not as Margery Allingham, the mystery writer – assuming the identity of a stage actress, "Polly Oliver." The story plays out over several decades during which Polly has to look on hopelessly as a close stage pal, Louie Lester, who married Frank Springer. A "four-flushing gasbag" with "such an inferiority complex" that "his whole life was spent trying to boost himself up to himself." And "the more weak and hopeless and inefficient he saw himself the wilder and more irritating his lies became." Over the years, decades even, he tore down his wife career and spirit. Until, many years later, they become lodgers of the now elderly and retired Polly who started her own boarding house. Polly decides enough is enough with Frank's charming personality and circumstances presenting her with an opportunity to stage a fatal accident.
Ex-Superintendent Cornish admits that Allingham's murder is "diabolically ingenious" and under favorable circumstances can be completely successful, but he can't be sure whether, or not, the murder truly represents a perfect crime. Because there are some avenues for the police to pursue. However, Cornish only gives a possible outcome of a more thorough police investigation, which depends the mentally unbalanced murderer confessing, but the altruistic motive and method would make securing a conviction a Herculean task. Cornish points out that a successful murder could emboldening Polly "to stage another apparent accident" when another situation arises that convinces her murder is "a reasonable and laudable act." But that's mere conjecture. So Allingham takes the first point for the Detection Club. TDC vs. Cornish: 1-0.
The very cheeky Father Ronald Knox presented with "The Fallen Idol" the most striking, unusual and non-inverted story of the bunch with a Ruritanian murder plot in Latin America. Somewhat reminiscent of Roger East's Twenty-Five Sanitary Inspectors (1935). Enrique Gamba, the Inspirer of the Magnolian Commonwealth, who emerged victorious from a coup and rules over the country with his right-hand man, General Almeda, but unpatriotic messages and threats are circulating the capitol city – promising to burn down Gamba's house with him in it. All of these threats were signed by "The Avenger." There's a fire at the house and Gamba is killed, shot through the head, before his body is flung out of an open window. Colonel Weinberg, the Chief of Police, has the unenviable task to find out who, how and why, which is a hazardous undertaking in a country like Magnolia. Fortunately, ex-Superintendent Cornish is in the luxurious position to not having to take the tinderbox politics of the country into consideration as he explains his case against the murderer and what probably happened after Knox ended the story. A very convincing account that evened the score. TDC vs. Cornish: 1-1.
So the previous story took place in an imaginary, cloud cuckoo-cuckoo land in South America, but Berkeley's "The Policeman Only Taps Once" imported a hardboiled confidence trickster from the United States to Jolly Old England. Eddie Tuffon managed to keep his record spotless, but the place was getting too hot and decided to go to England to give the marriage swindle the good old college try. A huge mistake! Eddie managed to get himself tied to an enormous, square-faced woman with numerous chins, Myrtle, who constantly bosses him around. Nor is she as rich as he had hoped. Myrtle constantly reminded him that her income is hardly enough "to keep an able-bodied husband in idleness" to the point where he "pretty near slugged her once or twice." Eddie comes to the conclusion that she has to go, but, even in an inverted mystery, there's always room for one of Berkeley's trademark twists. Unfortunately, Cornish points out in his analyses of the story, entitled "...And Then Come the Handcuffs," that Berkeley was "more successful in his clever and amusing parody of the new manner in American fiction than in his 'perfect murder''"– "ingeniously as he has worked it out." The twist in the story could very well end up being the one that tied the hangman's knot. Although he does admit that his case purely rests on a heap of circumstantial evidence, but, if there is enough of it, "circumstantial evidence is just as deadly as direct testimony." TDC vs. Cornish: 1-2.
Russell Thorndike is a new name to me who warrants further investigation, because "The Strange Death of Major Scallion" is easily my favorite from this collection. Such a well written and imaginative story in which the narrator tells the reader about his intention to kill his cousin, of sorts, the titular Major Scallion. A "fat, full-blooded, loud-voiced, bearded and young" man full of conceit, self-satisfaction and tall tales who likely never served a day. Major Scallion has a hold over the narrator which he handily uses to make a claim on his purse and hospitality. Nothing more, nor less, than blackmail. Slowly, the narrator's disgust turned into a cold, terrible hatred and began "a close study of murder as an art" to concoct the perfect method to avoid scaffold. Interestingly, the murder that inspires the narrator comes from an account of Thorndike's anti-hero series-character, Doctor Syn, who's an 18th century parson and smuggler. He even name drops his off-page opponent ("that other enemy to murder, Mr. Cornish"). Eventually settling on a seemingly ingenious method involving Major Scallion's excessive smoking habit, homemade nicotine poison and "a sinister family of house beetles." Regrettably, for our narrator, the method is full of holes and you don't need Cornish to spot the fatal flaw that will deliver him into the capable hands of the public hangman. TDC vs. Cornish: 1-3.
Dorothy L. Sayers returns to the theater setting with "Blood Sacrifice" as a young playwright, John Scales, finally gets his big break when a well-known actor-manager, Garrick Drury, decides to put on his play, Bitter Laurel – which was intended to be cynical and shocking play. Drury slowly reshaped the play into something "revoltingly different" that appealed to the masses and not without success. Scales even wrote the new scenes and lines himself, because "his own lines would be less intolerable than the united efforts of cast and producer to write them for themselves." This killed him on the inside as his name is now associated with sob-stuff and ruined his reputation with his artistic friends, which made him think of murder. However, the inevitable death of Garrick Drury wasn't a premeditated murder or even an act in the heat of the moment. Drury was send flying through a shop window by a skidding car and cut an artery in his arm, which required a blood transfusion to safe his life. So while the doctor and ambulance men try to safe his life and test everyone to find the right blood group, Scales notices the test plate get mixed up. Drury likely got a deadly blood transfusion, or did he? Not even Scales is entirely sure what he saw, but he kept his mouth shut.
Ex-Superintendent Cornish admits he "could not hope to prove, either to a jury's satisfaction or to my own, that John Scales was guilty of the crime of murder," but points out that "neither could any other detective." Not even that distinguished amateur, Lord Peter Wimsey, because Sayers had "failed to establish the fact of murder." There's a case to be made that Scales is morally guilty, but nothing that can be brought home unless the police can prove that he knew the test plates were mixed up and said nothing. Something that's next to impossible. So, in spite of Cornish's objections, Sayers scored a much needed point for her team. TDC vs. Cornish: 2-3.
Freeman Wills Crofts has the opportunity to end this battle-of-wits in a draw with his contribution, entitled "The Parcel," which is as simple as it's technical tricky and comes with a diagram of the murder weapon. The premise of the story is practically identical to Thorndike's "The Strange Death of Major Scallion" in which rehabilitated, one-time criminal, Stewart Haslar, returns to England with a wife and a modest fortune that he made when he sold his Australian chain of fruit stores. Only person who knows his real identity and past, Henry Blunt, returns to impose on Haslar's generosity. After nearly two years, Haslar comes to the conclusion Blunt has to go and devices, what he thinks, is a bombproof plan by sending his blackmailer a homemade explosive over the mail. A plan hinging entirely on the assumption that there's no traceable link between Blunt and Haslar, but, as Cornish pointed out, Blunt is unlikely to have covered his tracks as thoroughly as Haslar, which is one of the many paths the police can investigate in this murder – slowly building a complete case to present to the judge and jury. And "there is little doubt what the verdict will be." TDC vs Cornish: 2-4.
The 2013 reprint edition of Six Against the Yard closes with an afterword, or rather an introduction, to a 1929 true crime essay by Agatha Christie, but the only reason it was included was to emblazon her name on the cover. Why not include her own perfect murder story, “Wireless” (1926), with an analysis from a modern police inspector, or forensic detective, to show how the police could have brought the killer to justice. That would have given them a legitimate reason to plaster her name on the cover. Now it borders on false advertisement. Anyway, the introduction to the essay ended with this bummer of a line, "sadly, Superintendent Cornish, who died on 6th February 1959 at the age of 85, is unavailable for comment..." A salute to you, Superintendent Cornish! You were no Lestrade!
So, all in all, the Detection Club lost rather badly here with four of the six ending up in the docks, but the end score could have easily been flipped around had Berkeley and Knox showed off their plotting skills instead of their storytelling abilities. Nonetheless, I enjoyed these stories tremendously and particularly Cornish picking them apart that showed the police has one critical advantage over the amateur criminal: a ton of experience. Highly recommended! Particularly to mystery readers with a fondness for the inverted detective story.