A few years ago, I was doing some private research in estates and came across a title that was wholly unfamiliar to me: Double Death (1939) by Dorothy L. Sayers, Freeman Wills Crofts, Valentine Williams, F. Tennyson Jesse, Anthony Armstrong, and David Hume. Wow! I thought. This is a must-read! So I quickly bought a copy, and over a year later, finally got round to reading it.
The Detection Club’s round-robin novels have received renewed attention since HarperCollins reprinted the most famous one, The Floating Admiral, nearly a decade ago. But many still languish in obscurity: The Scoop (not very good, but containing an Agatha Christie contribution), Behind the Screen (very good, and again featuring pre-Dame Agatha), Crime on the Coast, No Flowers by Request, and more. All of these are items I got hold of in my teens and enjoyed, but, somehow, Double Death passed me by.
There are six chapters to this novel, each written by a different distinguished crime writer. The story was written as a newspaper serial and later tidied up with a fresh prologue by John Chancellor before its original publication. In 1939, it was reprinted in book form, along with each author’s notes on how the story should continue, which appear – fascinatingly – at the end of their respective chapters (rather than in an appendix). This aspect, the inclusion of the notes, is by far the book’s most interesting feature.
The story concerns Mrs Farland, a wealthy hypochondriac who might, for the first time in her life, be truly ill. She believes that she is being poisoned and keeps changing her will to inherit, then disinherit, various relatives and hangers-on, including her soon-to-be-married nephew John. When a nurse, who has experience of poisons, is sent for, someone decides to act. The nurse is drugged and killed in the railway station.
Dorothy L. Sayers, who needs no introduction, sets the scene in her chapter. She introduces various characters, each of whom, she explains in her methodical notes, could be the murderer, and gets slightly caught up in the topography and railway timetables of the imagined village of Creepe. She also introduces a real, over-the-counter and quite lethal sleeping draught, which the editor wisely fictionalises as Sleepine, and kills off Nurse Ponting.
Freeman Wills Crofts has Chapter Two, which is largely devoted to reproducing Sayers’ notes on poison in the mouth of a police doctor, and which culminates in a second death. I’ve always found Crofts quite boring but in a single chapter format, where he’s clearly annoyed at having to beboring, he shines and I found his contribution highly entertaining.
The third chapter is by Valentine Williams, the only contributor I’d never heard of, and, based on this contribution, I’m not keen to check him out. However, I did find hugely exciting the politics of his chapter. To set the scene, Williams has decided that John, the romantic hero, will be the murderer, so he sets up a secondary love interest for John’s fiancé (more on this later). Of this other chap, John says: ‘he hates me. He’s hated me ever since we blackballed him at the Conservative Club as an out and out Bolshie.’ In his notes, Williams explains that the aim of this is to make the rival appear ‘honest-minded’ and in touch with ‘the plight of the poor’ on a subconscious level, and to make John appear (again subconsciously) as a bully so that the reader is prepared, if still surprised, when he is unmasked.
F. Tennyson Jesse, author of the fourth chapter, displays such bitterness towards her peers and the whole task in general in her notes that I’ve gone off her for life! In her chapter, she decides that it would be cool and totally unexpected to make the young beautiful woman the murderer (yeah, that’s never been done before), so everything she writes is devoted to blackening this character’s name. So much so that, if anyone had taken up her suggestion, the reader would have felt hugely cheated at such an obvious outcome. While the three-quarter point is probably the easiest part to write in a collaborative mystery (you need suspense and action, you already have the characters and the big clues should have been dropped by now), Jesse insists that it’s the hardest – and her chapter makes it look that way.
The penultimate chapter is by Anthony Armstrong, an author I’d heard of but never read, and it aims to move everything towards the solution that Armstrong has devised. This is probably the most skilful chapter in the entire book and I do hope one day to check out more of Armstrong’s work.
As stated, though, the notes are really the interesting thing here. I love seeing the petty egos, the thinly-veiled contempt for other writers, and the sense that everyone is slightly afraid of Sayers. Everyone refers to each other with initials – FWC, FTJ, etc. – but Sayers is always ‘Miss Sayers.’ In the preface, John Chancellor can’t resist a swipe at ‘one or two of the authors’ who ‘would not permit their manuscript to be altered’ or who were ‘ignorant of, or indifferent to, the peculiar needs of newspapers.’ Several of the contributors express their ardent hope for a very good copyeditor, who is eventually named ‘The All-Seeing Eye of God (ASEOG).’
Each writer approaches not only the text but also the explanation of process and ideas differently: Armstrong highlights all his clues with page references. Sayers gives an essay on poison and a map. Crofts draws the map to scale and goes through each character methodically. Williams and Jesse state outright that that’s too much to get their head around and that maps and timetables can be red herrings, best ignored.
The romance angle is what struck me most. Over a decade earlier, Sayers herself had decried the need for romance in crime fiction as a ‘fettering convention’. In her notes, though, she explains that she has introduced a young couple purely in case John or his fiancé Penelope turn out to be guilty – the couple ‘may supply the love-interest (since the murderer obviously can’t have the love-interest)’. It seems that all her hopes of reinvigorating the genre retired with Lord Peter Wimsey. When Williams identifies John as the murderer, he introduces another young man for Penelope, as stated. Jesse goes for Penelope, writing: ‘I admit that if Penelope is the guilty one we are left without a love interest (which is not a thing that interests me personally in a detective story).’ However, she introduces another young woman (late on and unnecessarily sharing a Christian name with Sayers’ alterna-interest) for John, and spends a great deal of this chapter comparing that woman’s ‘natural beauty’ to Penelope’s obvious ‘golden’ sexiness. If all these writers felt so fettered by the convention, I just wish they’d had the guts to spice it up a bit!
A final point of interest in the notes is each writer’s proposed solution to the case, and how they’ve tried to present clues towards it; also how they’ve manipulated the previous information to serve it. Recently, on a Facebook page where I lurk more than I post, someone asked the question: have you ever read a Golden Age book and come up with a better solution than the author, which still fits all the clues? Several replies to the question came from writers who had been convinced they’d solved a mystery, found themselves proved wrong, and then determined to write a new story along the lines they’d thought of. Often when I read crime fiction from the 1920s and 1930s I feel like Agatha Christie might have had a similar idea. And here, I think, one of the solutions Armstrong proposes is almost certainly the basis for the solution to Sad Cypress, Christie’s 1940 novel.
David Hume’s final chapter is supposed to tie everything together. Instead, Hume picks a character no one else has suggested as the murderer, and then introduces a load of new evidence to incriminate them! This is not at all a satisfactory ending to the story as a story – and necessitates a fresh prologue by John Chancellor so that there is at least some basis for such an ending.
Written on the verge of war, Double Death comes at the end of crime fiction’s playful Golden Age and its publication with private notes shows some of the magic wearing off the genre. As a story, it’s frankly a mess, but as a curiosity and an insight into the workings of these writers’ minds, it’s of greater value than all the other round-robin novels put together.