The Floating Admiral and the Detection Club

In 1931 fourteen members of writers’ collective the Detection Club – including Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, G. K. Chesterton, and Ronald Knox – wrote a mystery novel together… one chapter each.

Magnifying glass
St├ęphane Magnenat, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Detection Club was a small group of the most eminent mystery writers in 1930s Britain. A few of them are still famous today – Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, G. K. Chesterton – and a few of them are virtually unknown today. They got together and had fancy dinners and talked shop. One of their number, Ronald Knox, had set out the rules for detective fiction, and the members of the Detection Club swore to uphold his commandments:

Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence or Act of God?

[…]

Do you promise to observe a seemly moderation in the use of Gangs, Conspiracies, Death-Rays, Ghosts, Hypnotism, Trap-Doors, Chinamen, Super-Criminals and Lunatics; and utterly and for ever to forswear Mysterious Poisons unknown to Science?

Oath of Detection

(This oath was written in the 1930s and it shows. Again with the Chinamen? Sheesh.)

The Detection Club still exists today – Martin Edwards is the current president – but my favourite episode in the club’s history comes very early. In 1931 fourteen of the club’s members wrote a mystery novel together, The Floating Admiral. What made it impressive was the fact that the fourteen did not plot it out together. Instead, each author wrote a chapter and then sent the manuscript on to the next author. That next author read everything that had been written already, without any insight into the mystery beyond the text itself, and then had to add their own chapter onto the end.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Well, if you are of a devilish turn of mind you might be thinking this: what would stop an author making up a completely unsolvable quagmire of clues, just to mess with the next author in the chain? The Detection Club thought of this possibility (they were mystery writers, after all). Every contributor had to write a solution to the mystery, taking into account all the clues up until the end of their chapter. These solutions were sealed up in envelopes, and none could be revealed until everyone had finished. The printed book contains all of the different authors’ solutions – it gives some insight into their respective thought processes and writing tricks.

The novel itself, the end result, is a glorious mess. Some of the contributing authors tried to keep things simple and some of the other authors tried to throw every curveball they could into the mix. Milward Kennedy, a minor novelist not particularly well remembered today, made a bit of a hash of his chapter apparently. The Floating Admiral is an admirable novelty but perhaps not an admirable novel.

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