The Floating Admiral (Detection Club)

Given that this is a single novel written by thirteen authors without direction, it is surprisingly successful. Except for G.K. Chesterton’s Prologue (written last), it is stylistically coherent, and the plot complications arise naturally out of the characters and situation (unlike Crime on the Coast), so that the plot is coherent and the murderer’s identity, under Anthony Berkeley’s skilful handling, properly inevitable. Other authors, however, make completely new solutions out of the old clues of tide and time-tables, wills, blackmail and black sheep. Indeed, the appendix is one of the highlights of the novel — Sayers’s solution is, as one would expect, the best, in direct contrast to the weakness of Milward Kennedy’s melodramatic one, which accuses an unknown ‘X’!

 Knox’s tabulation is necessary, but rather dull; and Crofts is unstoppable:

 The first question was: How had Mount made the journey? Mount had a car, but most persons of moderate income went by train, rail being so much cheaper for the long distance. Mount had been at the Vicarage at one o’clock, and he had rung up Rudge from the Charing Cross Hotel at nine. There were two, and only two, trains he could have used, the 2.5 from Whynmouth, which reached Waterloo at 5.45, and the 4.25 from Whynmouth, arriving at 8.35…

He had gone by the 1.30 which connected at Passfield Junction with the 11.0 a.m. express from Waterloo to the west.”

Of course, the most interesting round robin of the time would be one written in which the clever literary writers (Innes, Bailey, Allingham) alternate with the orthodox school (Crofts, Rhode, and Co.).


1932 Doubleday

THE FLOATING ADMIRAL is one of the most remarkable detective stories ever written. It is the work of the English Detection Club, to which the foremost English mystery writers belong. With a preface by Dorothy L. Sayers, and the story itself by G. K. Chesternto, Canon Victor L. Whitechurch, G. D. H. and M. Cole, Henry Wade, Agatha Christie, John Rhode, Milward Kennedy, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ronald A. Knox, Freeman Wills Crofts, Edgar Jepson, Clemence Dane, and Anthony Berkeley, it presents a thrilling novel of mystery and detection by the ablest living writers. For the detective story reader’s further enjoyment, alternative solutions have been supplied by many of the authors. To those who read for pleasure this brilliant story offers a completely engrossing plot and an absorbing narrative; the student of detective stories will find in it, with its two appendices and its added solutions, an unparalleled opportunity to compare his own powers of deduction with those of the authors. In its power and appeal THE FLOATING ADMIRAL is comparable to E. C. Bentley’s great detective story classic, “Trent’s Last Case.”


Times Literary Supplement (E.E. Mavrogordato, 10th December 1931): The Floating Admiral is the joint product of “The Detection Club”.  “Each contributor tackled the mystery presented to him in the preceding chapters without having the slightest idea what solution or solutions the previous authors had in mind”; and, as the members of the club were not criminologists for nothing, it was made a condition that each writer should submit a solution with his chapter “to make sure he was playing fair”.

The parts assembled, the story was made over to Mr. Chesterton, who finished it with ample pinion in a Prologue and set it off flying from China.  Canon V.L. Whitechurch supplies a boat floating down an English river with the body of a murdered admiral in it.  Mr. and Mrs. G.D.H. Cole, who take over from him, are mainly concerned that social status shall not protect the local vicar from suspicion.  Mr. H. Wade counters with a French maid; he then points out a few things that might be expected to interest his successor, Mrs. Christie; and Mrs. Christie, who heads her chapter, “Mainly Conversation”, deftly passes his questions by.  Mr. Rhode gets down to work by descanting on the vagaries of a tidal river, and he prompts his inspector to a theory the fate of which might be gathered from the heading of Mr. Milward Kennedy’s chapter: “Inspector Rudge thinks better of it”.  Mrs. Sayers, agog with many suspicions, takes her troubles to Father Knox.  In vain in the sight of that downy bird—Father Knox merely formulates “Thirty-nine Articles of Doubt”.  It is not, in the nature of Articles so conceived to indicate the solution; but they abound in phrases of general cautionary value to the young detective: “The misleading infallibility of the expert”; “the scrupulous in this world are apt to be more of a nuisance than the unscrupulous” (a dig at the vicar); “a theologian’s unconscious animus” (a dig at the inspector, whom, until then, one had thought a Laodicean); Mr. F.W. Crofts—like a chairman calling “Order”—arranges at once for “an adequate identification of the remains”; and Mr. E. Jepson, in courtesy to Mrs. Sayers, who had noticed that the sunburn on a certain face was oddly distributed, extracts the hair of a beard from a bathroom pipe.

By this time the reader is feeling much as he does when professors of all the ’ologies and ’isms combine to explain to him the riddle of the universe; and he is grateful to Miss Clemence Dane, who is charged with the penultimate chapter, for admitting in the appendix that she was “in a complete muddle as to what has happened”.  Being a determined lady, she forces the issue by producing a second corpse, and then hands, or hurls, the tangled threads to Mr. Anthony Berkeley.  Mr. Berkeley performs such a remarkable feat of invisible mending that the story should wear quite well.

Times Literary Supplement (Ruth Dudley Edwards, 25th December 1981):


If G.D.H. and Margaret Cole count as one, this curiosity-cum-novel, first published in 1931, was most unnaturally conceived by thirteen members of the Detection Club.  It is difficult to imagine that it could even have been brought to term without Dorothy Sayers’s efforts as midwife as well as contributor.  She put into the project all the enthusiasm she felt for the Club itself, where she took the ceremonial with such seriousness that (her biographer notes) younger members found her a dampener on much of its whimsy.

Her introduction to this book is certainly a mixture of solemnity and fun.  There is earnest reiteration of the Club’s commitment to eschew accident and coincidence, and play the detection game in an honourable manner.  That same principle underlay The Floating Admiral.  Starting with Canon Victor Whitechurch, who contented himself with the discovery of an admiral’s corpse in a boat drifting upstream, each author in turn added a chapter with no assistance from anything but his own wits.  The rules were rigid: each writer must not only continue the story in such a way that the whole was capable of solution but must also, and at the time of writing, compose a full solution.  Dorothy Sayers testified to the difficulties of the task.  “Speaking for myself, I may say that the helpless bewilderment into which I was plunged on receipt of Mr. Milward Kennedy’s little bunch of brain-teasers was, apparently, fully equalled by the hideous sensation of bafflement which overcame Father Ronald Knox when, having, as I fondly imagined, cleared up much that was obscure, I handed the problem on to him.”

The result is a book of irresistible charm for students of the detective story.  Agatha Christie, faced with unfamiliar characters, nevertheless managed to introduce into her brief contribution not only new twists but also one of her own vintage types—the garrulous lady.  How marvellously predictable too that Freeman Wills Crofts—against all odds—should make most of his running from an examination of railway timetables.  Unlike those two—who were acting true to form—Ronald Knox introduced an element of self-parody, saddling the unfortunate detective with a list of questions thrown up by the case that in the end came to Thirty-nine Articles of Doubt.

Of course the whole was somewhat uneven.  The best submission, that of Anthony Berkeley, was an exercise in glittering ingenuity, and, fifty years on, a reminder of how disgracefully undervalued he has been.  A few of the others, like Edgar Jepson and Clemence Dane, seem to have concluded that the waters were altogether too deep and confined themselves to brief chapters muddying just one area.  Yet they all succeeded in carrying the story along—even the Coles, whose main gifts were certainly not in the writing of fiction.  G.K. Chesterton is perhaps the exception.  He had the easy job of writing the prologue after the story had been finished, and made it so delphic that it makes little sense unless read afterwards.

That the exercise produced not just a curiosity but a readable novel has, of course, a great deal to do with the Detection Club members’ pure delight in the setting and solving of puzzles.  There is a lengthy appendix containing the solutions worked out by each author, in which their love for that aspect of their craft is evident.  Indeed Dorothy Sayers’s enthusiasm here got the better of her: it is hard to maintain interest in her theory for twenty pages.  Clemence Dane is much more endearing when, after a half-hearted shot at a solution, she ends with “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”.

It is difficult to imagine our best detective story writers playing the same game nowadays—Michael Innes following a chapter of suburban menace from Ruth Rendell, putting a light-hearted, elaborately wrought and improbable gloss on the story and then handing it over to P.D. James for the bleak psychological explanation.  Yet it sounds a highly engaging prospect.  But where is the midwife?

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): Map, Introd., and Appendices These members of the (London) Detection Club collaborate with skill in a piece of detection rather more tight-knit than one had a right to expect.  There is enough to amuse and to stimulate detection; and the Introduction by Dorothy Sayers and supplements by critics and solvers give an insight into the writers’ thoughts and modes of work.