Round Robin Mysteries

The success of crime writing duos such as Nicci French (a husband and wife team) and the Golden Age superstar Ellery Queen (two American cousins) is beyond dispute – but their working methods often seems rather mysterious. Writing is such a personal activity – how can two people write a book together?

Yet for two writers to collaborate is a doddle in comparison to, say, a dozen people trying to write a book together. Yet, over the decades, a number of “round robin” mysteries have been published. And 2011 has seen the reappearance of perhaps the most famous of them all – The Floating Admiral, originally produced by members of the Detection Club in 1932.

What is more, The Floating Admiral earned a good deal of praise on its republication by Harper Collins and has sold very well – a pleasing reward for an enterprising piece of publishing. But how do collaborative mysteries work?

The answer is that much depends not just on the expertise of the writers, but also on the approach they take to the task. The story may be a piece of entertainment, but its construction needs to be thought about with some care. Without thought, and a bit of planning, the results may become chaotic.

In her Introduction to The Floating Admiral, Dorothy L. Sayers explained the conditions under which the book was written:

‘Here, the problem was made to approach as closely as possible to a problem of real detection. Except in the case of Mr. Chestertons’s picturesque Prologue, which was written last, each contributor tackled the mystery presented to him in the preceding chapters without having slightest idea what solution or solutions the previous authors had in mind. Two rules only were imposed. Each writer must construct his instalment with a definite solution in view: that is, he must not introduce new complications merely ‘to make it more difficult’… Secondly, each writer was bound to deal faithfully with all the difficulties or his consideration by his predecessors.’

The story was written by Canon Victor L. Whitechurch, G.D.H. and M. Cole, Henry Wade, Agatha Christie, John Rhode, Milward Kennedy, Sayers, Ronald A. Knoz, Freeman Wills Crofts, Edgar Jepson, Clemence Dane, and Anthony Berkeley. Many of these names are forgotten today, but in the Golden Age, they were market leaders.

Berkeley’s lengthy concluding chapter was appropriately titled ‘Clearing Up The Mess’. Certainly, tying up all the various strands is the toughest part of the creation of any collaborative mystery. Appealingly, the book contained the solutions proffered by the earlier contributors (apart from the authors of the first two chapters.)

The new edition contains an interesting foreword by Simon Brett, the current President of the Detection Club, who has himself been involved in some round-robin writing – one of the books concerned rejoiced in the title The Sunken Sailor – a pleasing nod, of course, to The Floating Admiral.

The Detection Club had previously turned out two collaborative mysteries for BBC Radio serialisation - Behind the Screen and The Scoop. The stories appeared also in weekly instalments in “The Listener”, but were only published together in book form about half a century later. And the Club followed up the success of The Floating Admiral a year later with another group effort of distinction.

This was Ask a Policeman, an agreeable story enlivened by a pleasing gimmick. Four authors exchanged detectives with each other. Anthony Berkeley, for instance, wrote a chapter featuring Sayers’ hero Lord Peter Wimsey What is more, the result was one of the most entertaining parodies of classic detective fiction that has been produced.

The complexities of writing a collaborative mystery can’t be under-estimated. I enjoyed writing a chapter of one such book myself a couple of years back. Sadly, the finished story has never seen the light of day. I’m not sure why – but I suspect that the plot convolutions became too much for later contributors. Whatever the truth of it, I do hope that one day the story will be completed. Or alternatively, that I have another chance to work on a round-robin mystery. They may be tricky, but they are fun to write as well as to read.

(This article first appeared at www.bookdagger.com)