The Sinking Admiral

Here Simon Brett describes his Detection Club 'voyage' to publish The Sinking Admiral.

The Floating Admiral was published in 1931 and written by ‘Certain Members of the Detection Club’. Since those ‘Certain Members’ included Agatha Christie, G.K. Chesterton, Ronald Knox, Anthony Berkeley and Dorothy L. Sayers, over the years the book has gained the status of Golden Age classic. It was republished by Macmillan in 1981 and HarperCollins in 2011, and there have been many foreign editions. Since the co-authors all handed over their copyright to the Detection Club, royalties from sales of the book have helped to defray the expenses occasioned by the association’s modest, but admirable, ambition of holding three congenial dinners a year.

When I took over the Presidency in 2001, I was of course aware of ‘The Floating Admiral’. I had read it and enjoyed its period charm. And even back then I had nursed the secret ambition of one day producing another collaborative novel by ‘Certain Members of the Detection Club’.

In her introduction to the original volume Dorothy L. Sayers wrote: ‘Now, a word about the conditions under which ‘The Floating Admiral’ was written. Here, the problem was made to approach as closely as possible to a problem of real detection… 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. 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”. He must be ready, if called upon, to explain his own clues coherently and plausibly; and to make sure that he was playing fair in this respect, each writer was bound to deliver, together with the manuscript of his own chapter, his own proposed solution of the mystery. These solutions are printed at the end of the book for the benefit of the curious reader.’

Now that is clearly the ideal way of writing a collaborative novel, passing on the story-telling baton to the next contributor as in a version of the old parlour game, ‘Consequences’. And in the 1920s and 30s, parlour games and crosswords vied for popularity with Golden Age whodunnits. There was a desire for escapist fun during those long country house weekends (which proved such convenient settings for a little light intellectual murder).

However, it soon became clear that to produce a collaborative crime novel in the twenty-first century was going to require a different approach from the one Dorothy L. Sayers proposed and followed. Though she and her co-writers had individual styles, they were all basically writing the same kind of book, the classic whodunit. So it was entirely possible for them to write a chapter, setting up a variety of clues, which would then be followed and elaborated on by the next writer in the chain.

But that could no longer be done. Though I had assembled a force of fourteen eminent crime writers (the same number as contributed to ‘The Floating Admiral’), and though they had all selflessly agreed that any profits from the book should go the Detection Club, a new approach was required. Because almost nobody now, unless they’re resorting to irony, post-modernism or pastiche, writes traditional whodunits. Today’s crime fiction is very broad church. The genre has divided itself up into many subgenres. There are police procedurals, legal thrillers, forensic thrillers, financial thrillers, historical mysteries and many more. All of these boast skilled practitioners and enthusiastic fans, but a book which continually jumped from one subgenre to the next would be unlikely to make a lot of sense.

So, early on in the planning for our sequel, The Sinking Admiral, I took the decision to home in on the individual specialities of the contributing authors. If one of them was an expert in the world of high finance, then he or she would write the chapter about the shifty City financier. The same approach would be followed into the worlds of politics, publishing, journalism, the law, the church and so on. One of the story threads – the ongoing police investigation – would be followed through by the same writer and interwoven with the rest of the text.

The resulting book, by comparison with ‘The Floating Admiral’, turned out therefore to be not so much a game of dominoes as a jigsaw. And for me something of an editorial nightmare – enjoyable but complicated. I certainly spent longer on assembling this collaborative venture than I would on writing a complete novel of my own.

When all fourteen writers had made their main contributions and the book was complete but for its last two chapters, we held a Whodunit Dinner at the Groucho Club. For the contributors able to attend, two questions had to be answered that evening. One, who committed the appalling crimes outlined in the narrative? And two, who was going to write the chapters of the denouement? I am glad to say that both questions were answered with the collaborative creativity and geniality which characterised the entire process of creating ‘The Sinking Admiral’.

To my considerable pride, it was published in June 2016. It has since received friendly reviews, and I hope its profits will go on to defray the expenses of future Detection Club dinners.

One little extra the book provided… the way it was assembled offered its readers a second level of whodunitry. Not only could they try to identify the perpetrators of any crimes that might occur, they could also have a go at the puzzle of who wrote which bit of the book.

I hope readers of The Sinking Admiral will enjoy this double challenge. And I hope that some of the more acute mystery buffs among them will spot in the text a few moments of homage to The Floating Admiral and the distinguished history of the Detection Club.


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