Book Review: The Floating Admiral

Have you ever heard of a novel written by thirteen authors? No? Even I hadn't, until very recently when I chanced upon The Floating Admiral. Written by the members of the legendary Detection Club, this novel is unique in several ways. The Club, which comprised of the greatest crime writers of our times - Agatha Christie, G. K. Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers, Henry Wade, John Rhode, Edgar Jepson, Anthony Berkeley, Ronald A. Knox, Milward Kennedy, Clemence Dane, Freeman Wills Crofts, G. D. H. & M. Cole, Victor L. Whitechurch among many others, undertook a challenge to collectively come up with a detective novel written under certain special conditions.

Allow me to explain a bit before I tell you those special caveats. Let's take an Agatha Christie novel for instance. Any case pursued by Poirot or Miss Marple or the Tommy-Tuppence pair is bound to have some elements of fiction. When similar incidents happen in real life, an investigator or the police itself for that matter cannot solve them as it happens in such novels.

It's simply because whatever materializes in a whodunit or a crime thriller is fully the imagination of the author. He/she knows who committed the deed; all the author has to do is to lay the clues cleverly letting the protagonist follow up those leads to identify the culprit. This thought process just cannot be applied to practical cases.

Hence, the Club members came up with the following provisions. The problem at hand has to be approached as closely as possible to a problem of real detection. In order to achieve this, each chapter of the novel is to be written by one author, where in he/she took the plot  forward with the puzzle presented to him/her in the preceding chapters. Also, they have no clue of what solution the previous authors had in their mind. This brings about the element of unpredictability associated with real life cases. To spruce up things a bit,

  • Each author must write his episode with a definite solution in mind. They shouldn't be adding new twists to the plot for the mere sake of complicating it. Simply put, the author must be able to explain why he chose to take the story forward in a particular way. He should be able to give a satisfactory solution to the mystery with the clues already available (from previous chapters) and the ones he introduces in his part (if any).
  • Also, each writer has to deal with the story presented to them in the best of their faiths. Clues and difficulties pursued and presented in the previous chapters shouldn't be dropped or dismissed as they like and would have to be tackled so as to form a cohesive solution to the puzzle.

Arduous and demanding is it not? You bet it was! Having no idea of how the story has shaped up, then contributing their part on its receipt and handing the case to the next author is a challenge of the highest order. I imagine how it would have been for them to write this. Child's play! That's the way I would like to surmise this concours.

The plot begins quite simplistically, with the 'twists' being added as the story progresses. The prologue (by G. K. Chesterton, which was written last) proceeds to explain certain events that seemingly bear no semblance to the story that concerns the death of an admiral in Whynmouth, who is found dead on a rowing boat as a result of a stab wound. Inspector Rudge, who lands this case, begins his investigation but is stumped by the MO of the crime. As the plot gets thicker, his theories take various shapes and forms that climaxes in a brilliant Clearing up of the Mess.

Tying up all the loose ends, Anthony Berkeley, writer of the last chapter, offers a very satisfying solution. It is quite apparent and interesting to see how the suspicion falls on different characters with each passing chapter. Agatha Christie is in her trademark self in a part that is Mainly Conversation while it's Dorothy L. Sayers who offers an ingenious Shock (read twist) to the story.

Ronald A. Knox comes up with an equally brilliant part that involves the inspector ruminating on the crime and also apprising the reader of the headway made so far, thereby making Berkeley's job quite easy at the end, as he just had to make sure that his solution satisfied all the Doubts that were raised.

All the other writers, in one way or the other, propel the story ahead in a big way, at the same time sustaining the suspense and overall flow. Keeping true to the conditions, the clues get construed in myriad ways, with each writer bringing about the uncertainty by taking the case in divergent directions thus mimicking a real-life detection scenario.

In addition, every one of them (except for G. K. Chesterton, Victor L. Whitechurch and G. D. H. & M. Cole, who had written the first three parts and Anthony Berkeley) offer their own interpretations and solutions to the mystery in an Appendix section, which I feel is the best part of the book. Of all the solutions proffered, though every others' explanations are very reasonable, cogent and adequate, Christie's is the most imaginative (no surprises there!), with hers treading a markedly different approach to the whole affair. Full marks to the challenge and the way each author steered the tale with great consistency and pace. This is detective fiction at its best!