Ask a Policeman (Detection Club)

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Lord Peter Wimsey … by Anthony Berkeley! Roger Sheringham … by Dorothy L. Sayers! Mrs. Bradley … by Helen Simpson! And Sir John Saumarez … by Gladys Mitchell!

Ask a Policeman was the Detection Club’s second “round robin”. In their first mutual venture, The Floating Admiral (1931), the writers had taken it in turns to write a chapter of Inspector Rudge’s investigations. This time, four writers took charge of another writer’s sleuth, with mixed results.

Ask a Policeman, the blurb states, “combines the interest of detection with the fun of parody. A problem is propounded; ingenious and, for the solvers, malicious, and in itself a parody of a thousand and one Detective Stories.”

Newspaper tycoon Lord Comstock is shot in his study. His papers had attacked Christianity, with the slogan “Back to Paganism!” (hurrah) and the Platonic Republic (boo) – and the Archbishop was in the study with him. The papers had also denounced government policy, and the Chief Whip was in the waiting-room. Worse, they had attacked Scotland Yard as “inefficient, ill-conducted, and corrupt”, and the Assistant Commissioner of Police was in the drawing-room.

John Rhode (master of methodical exposition) does an excellent job of setting up the mystery, with a map of Hursley Lodge, a timetable of the characters’ movements, and sundry clues and red herrings (confidential papers taken from a drawer, a mysterious lady seen by the gardener). His chapter is livelier and wittier than some of his own books; in 1933, when he had only written 32 novels, he still had verve.

Since the police have a conflict of interest, the Home Office calls in four outside experts. Only Milward Kennedy made an “awkward blunder”:  he asked each writer for the views of a detective not their own (or so the pretence goes).

The four writers “worked on their own, in ignorance of one another’s plans”. The plotting is a testament to their inventiveness, but the result is more confusing than entertaining. The detective story gets bogged down in ballistics, time-tables, and often laborious discussion, and lacks the cleverness and panache each of the four were capable of on their own.

Helen Simpson’s chapter is a clever pastiche of Mitchell’s early technique. Mrs. Bradley enlists a clever youngster as her assistant, covers up for the culprit (“I shall hold my tongue and record it as my conviction that there are occasions when killing is no murder. The late Lord Comstock is very much better dead.”), and she records her observations and deductions in her diary. But the ballistics are more technical than G. M. usually was. (From memory, although Mitchell and Mrs. Bradley were both keen pistol-shots, there are only two deaths by firearms in all 66 novels: 1948’s Dancing Druids and 1983’s Greenstone Griffins.)

Simpson gives Mrs. Bradley her age (64); her second name (“Adela”); and a sister-in-law, the formidable, 15-stone Lady Selina Lestrange, and a niece, Sally. (They reappear in 1940’s Brazen Tongue and 1974’s Winking at the Brim, among others.) She also gives Mrs. Bradley lorgnettes (an affectation G. M. didn’t adopt), a marked British accent when speaking German, and a tendency to go white and collapse when taking justice into her own hands. Since Mrs. Bradley is an avatar of the Goddess, this is unlikely. Mrs. Bradley, we are also told, was the perfect guest – which may be news to the Bing family.

Mitchell’s own contribution is perhaps the least satisfactory, because I know Sir John Saumarez least. (I have read the two books, but that was nearly 20 years ago.) She rather drew the short straw: the other three detectives are all “personalities”. Mitchell (rather wisely) refuses to have anything to do with the talk and timetables of her colleagues; instead, she plants Sir John at a garden party, signing autographs and eating tinned fruit with revulsion. The point of this episode is not detection (which is slight), but for Sir John to show the Archbishop his talent as an actor, which the Archbishop has dismissed as mannerism. It is a mildly diverting comic episode about two egotists.

Which leads us, the uncharitable might say, to Lord Peter Wimsey and Roger Sheringham. The problem with their creators’ mutual parody is that the characters are too similar: both are clubmen and men-about-town, with tame inspectors in tow. Berkeley pushes Lord Peter’s mania for quotations to extremes, presents the Dowager Duchess, Miss Climpson, and Bunter, and ends with a typically clever least likely solution and surprise. But according to Mitchell, “Anthony’s manipulation of Lord Peter Wimsey caused the massive lady anything but pleasure”.

By the time Sayers presented her solution, I was beginning to weary, but her description of Mrs. Bradley is priceless: “A tiresome old female with a screeching laugh and a voice like a church organ.”

Milward Kennedy solves this imbroglio, deliberately breaking Detection Club rules. His contribution is dull and talky. I found it difficult to take much interest in his explanation, which retcons most of the previous chapters. Still, there is an amusing passage:

The Home Secretary particularly disliked the reference to the possibility of further murders; for Anderson at the beginning had protested against the “expert” idea. Mrs. Bradley, he argued, was possibly a murderess already; Mr. Sheringham was almost certainly an accomplice after the fact; Sir John Saumarez (“not that that is his real name”) was married to a lady who had been found guilty of murder; and the Sunday papers had more than once linked the name of Lord Peter Wimsey… and, after all, his brother the Duke

p. 282

But that passage also reminds us that each of the authors did their best work by themselves, when they could plan and write from start to finish. This collaboration is for completists only.


1933 Arthur Barker

Here is something delightfully new in “thrills” – a story which combines the interest of detection with the fun of parody.

A problem is propounded; ingenious and, for the solvers, malicious, and in itself a parody of a thousand and one Detective Stories: a great Newspaper Proprietor dies in his study, and suspicion falls upon an Archbishop, a Secretary, a Police Commissioner and the Chief Whip of the political party in power. There is, too, a Mysterious Lady. What, then, can the Home Secretary do but call in the Amateur Experts?

There are four of them, each takes a hand, and each produces a different solution. In the end the Gordian knot is cut: they are all wrong, and the moral seems to be that at times it is wise not to consult the amateur however expert, but to Ask a Policeman however ordinary.

1933 Morrow

“One of the most original … and entertaining – mysteries I have ever read… A brilliant tour de force that the most jaded fans will relish.”

R. A. J. Walling

A murder mystery (written by JOHN RHODE) so strange and baffling that the Home Secretary appeals for help to four of the great amateur detectives of our day – Lord Peter Wimsey, Sir John Saumarez, Mrs. Bradley and Roger Sheringham. Sir John (guided, strange to say, not by HELEN SIMPSON but by GLADYS MITCHELL), Lord Peter (in the hands of ANTHONY BERKELEY, who usually writes of Roger Sheringham), Mrs. Bradley (inspired by HELEN SIMPSON) and Mr. Sheringham (with the help of DOROTHY L. SAYERS) each track down a different murderer and prove him guilty of the crime. But Scotland Yard is in the background, and MILWARD KENNEDY, coming to the rescue with the police, clarifies the situation.

These six authors are all members of the Detection Club, that honourable guild whose members ply their trade according to certain rules of art and craftsmanship. In Ask a Policeman they not only solve brilliantly one of the most difficult problems of technique that has ever confronted them but take the opportunity to indulge in skilful and sly parodies of each other that will delight their followers.


The Bystander (“Ericus”, 22nd March 1933): Thrillers that are Different

There is no doubt about it, thrillers are not what they were. Gone are the simple days of blood and thunder. The mixture as before of strong but practically speechless heroism, beauty in distress and clinging garments, inhumanly sardonic villainy and hairbreadth escapes by flood and field demands nowadays an increasingly liberal allowance of jam for its consumption. For “jam” read “characterisation” and there you have the difference between the new thriller and the old. A race of amateur sleuths has arisen, Lord Peter Wimseys, Colonel Gores, and the like, who achieve greatness not by the things they do but by the winsome way they do them; while, on the professional side, the detective inspectors of such old-time epics as “The Bloodstain on the Boulder; or, Did He Fall or was He Pushed?” are transformed into our far more delectable Poirots and Hanauds. Even the real honest- to-goodness shocker cloaks its horrors in a guise of reality and its characters with the qualities of everyday, or, at any rate, every-other-day, people.

And so with two samples of the modern species I have read this week. In the first, Ask a Policeman, John Rode [sic] propounds a problem: “Who,” in short, “killed Lord Comstock in his study at Hursley Lodge at the time stated and on the date in question?” as they say in the Police Court parlance.

Four amateurs of fiction fling their hats into the ring and the hunt is on. With the ingenious promptings of Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley, Helen Simpson, and Gladys Mitchell, they each carefully work out a solution pointing unmistakably in a different direction. Whereupon, in steps heavy Officialdom, in the shape of Major Littleton, of Scotland Yard, with his abettor, Milward Kennedy, and, after some juggling with the facts which would inevitably evoke cries of “Foul!” at any well-regulated guessing-bee, out comes the true explanation of the crime. In other words, if you want to know the time, or the owner of the blunt instrument, ask a policeman. I should add that, in order to make everything more difficult than it is already, the gifted authors have to play the course with borrowed clubs. Lord Peter Wimsey, for example, is manipulated by Anthony Berkeley, Roger Sheringham by Dorothy L. Sayers, and so on. This book is, perhaps, less a contribution to fiction than an extremely pretty round game for the winter evenings. Play it slowly – you mustn’t rush your fences – and you will enjoy it.

The Daily Telegraph (E. C. Bentley, 24th March 1933): The mystery of the shooting of Lord Comstock, a pest of public life, is handled in this unusual book by Dorothy L. Sayers, Helen Simpson, Gladys Mitchell, John Rhode and Milward Kennedy, as well as Anthony Berkeley. They borrow one another’s famous detectives; and the exercises in parody are so interesting as to distract one a little from the main matter in hand.

Lord Peter Wimsey and the others each produce a different solution; and each of them is – for the first time in detective history – wrong. There is, by the way, an admirable use made by Miss Mitchell of the B.B.C. institution of broadcast drama.

Daily Mirror (31st March 1933): This galaxy of authors have collected together in one group. John Rhode propounds a problem and four well-known fictional detectives are set to solve it. An ingenious idea! Milward Kennedy comes in at the end to prove they were all wrong, but most readers will decide in favour of Lord Peter, whose solution seems the most adroit. A very amusing experiment in detective fiction.

The Observer (Robert Bell, 16th April 1933): Ask a Policeman is a literary jeu d’esprit, rather a work of detective fiction, or, rather it is both in one. It is concerned with a murder problem set by John Rhode, but not solved. The solution – various solutions – are supplied in turn by Helen Simpson, Gladys Mitchell, Anthony Berkeley, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Milward Kennedy. A further “conceit” is that each writer uses another writer’s characters, so that Lord Peter Wimsey appears in Mr. Berkeley’s contribution and Sir John Saumarez in Miss Mitchell’s. The book is thus an exercise in parody as well as crime detection, and there is a certain danger of over-ingenuity. But at least one of the solutions (Miss Helen Simpson’s) is brilliant.

Times Literary Supplement (27th April 1933): Anthony Berkeley, Milward Kennedy, Gladys Mitchell, John Rhode, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Helen Simpson have, each and all, given us so much amusement that they are collectively entitled to have their fling and their fun. This book is the parody of a detective story; each chapter is a parody by one of the authors of the style and method of another. The reader must be left to decide which does it best; he will probably agree that Lord Peter Wimsey and Sir John Saumarez are the easiest subjects for caricature. He may possibly lament that, in a world which needs detective fiction as an escape from reality, so many excellent plots and so much ingenuity should be butchered; or he may rejoice to find his old friends so rich that they care not how they give.

Times Literary Supplement (T.J. Binyon, 18th May 1984): CRIMINAL PROCEEDINGS

Connoisseurs of detective fiction of the 1930s, and historians of detective fiction in general, already owe a large debt to Macmillan for publishing The Floating Admiral, a collective work written by members of the Detection Club. The debt has now been increased by the appearance of Ask a Policeman, another in the same genre. This time the problem is set by John Rhode: Lord Comstock, an unpleasant newspaper tycoon, is found murdered in the study of his country house, Hursley Lodge (see map provided). That morning he has been visited by the Government Chief Whip, an Archbishop, and the Assistant Commissioner at Scotland Yard. Whether any of these committed the crime is ruminated on by Anthony Berkeley, Gladys Mitchell, Helen Simpson and Dorothy L. Sayers. Only – and here a touch of genius enters – each writer makes use of another’s detective. Sayers and Berkeley exchange Wimsey and Sheringham; Mitchell and Simpson Mrs. Bradley and Sir John Saumarez. A final chapter by Milward Kennedy offers what might be a definitive treatment. It’s an amusing collection: the ingenuity of all the participants is immense, with each solution as convincing as the previous one. And in Anthony Berkeley’s hands Wimsey becomes almost a plausible man-about-town.

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): Floor plan of the study

Rhode sets forth the problem of “Death at Hursley Lodge”, the shooting of a newspaper tycoon in his study. The other authors are then each given a chance to solve the problem through the medium of another writer’s fictional detective. Simpson does Mrs. Bradley, Mitchell does Sir John Saumarez, Sayers does Roger Sheringham, Berkeley does Lord Peter Wimsey. In conclusion, Milward Kennedy makes order out of the divergent views of the several detectives and manages a reasonable solution. The upshot is a really beautiful job of mystifying and serious parody. The solution per accidens is a purposeful letdown, which in no way spoils the tale. Note: The floor plan, on which much depends, is small and poorly reproduced, which unfairly puts the reader at a disadvantage.

3 thoughts on “Ask a Policeman (Detection Club)

  1. The most recent reprint puts Agatha Christie’s name on the cover in large letters, although she had nothing to do with the original book; it just contains an unrelated short essay by AC, which doesn’t really justify the use of her name.


  2. I’ve always thought that this round robin mystery thing sounded like a seriously bad idea. Possibly fun for the contributors but I’ve never really been tempted to read one of them.


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