Most fans of Golden Age detective fiction (GAD) will be aware of the portmanteau novel The Floating Admiral (1931) in which many luminaries of the form each contributed a chapter in turn to a murder mystery plot (pity poor Anthony Berkeley, who had to unravel all the clues and events to provide a coherent solution in the final chapter). I’m imagining that slightly — but only slightly — fewer of you will be aware of the precursors to this novel written in the preceding year, where the same sort of approach was taken for two mysteries to be broadcast on radio.
‘Behind the Screen’ (1930) and ‘The Scoop’ (1931) saw, in various combinations, E.C. Bentley, Anthony Berkeley, Agatha Christie, Freeman Wills Crofts, Clemence Dane, Ronald Knox, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Hugh Walpole contribute chapters to a similarly portmanteau mystery, and I thought I’d look at the longer of these two first because, well, it was first in the book (they are published together under the title The Scoop and Behind the Screen — chronologically reversed). ‘Behind the Screen’ may follow, I can’t say either way — let’s do this one first and see how we get on.
The writing of ‘The Scoop’ differs from The Floating Admiral in two key ways: firstly in that the general plot, events, and highlights of each chapter were broadly agreed in advance among the six authors involved, and secondly in that each author contributes two chapters of approximately eight pages each. For the curious, the chapter-by-author breakdown runs thus:
Chapter I: Dorothy L. Sayers
Chapter II: Agatha Christie
Chapter III: E.C. Bentley
Chapter IV: Agatha Christie
Chapter V: Anthony Berkeley
Chapter VI: Freeman Wills Crofts
Chapter VII: Clemence Dane
Chapter VIII: E.C. Bentley
Chapter IX: Anthony Berkeley
Chapter X: Clemence Dane
Chapter XI: Freeman Wills Crofts
Chapter XII: Dorothy L. Sayers
With the exception of Crofts (we’ll get to this in due course) everyone was free to finish off threads started by someone else — so something introduced by Christie at the end of chapter 2 is resolved by Bentley in chapter 8, and Dane’s extremely entertaining seventh chapter leaves a few points which Berkeley then turns into fertile new ground in chatper 9, and so on. This is both interesting and frustrating, especially when someone is required to pay off a setup in a manner that they clearly didn’t anticipate being handed, and I thought an author-by-author comparison might be interesting. It might not, I dunno, but let me write it, then you read it, and then we’ll decide afterwards. Deal?
The plot concerns the murder of a young lady of potentially dubious morals in an isolated bungalow on the outskirts of Brighton — it has, like a lot of GAD plots, a real life murder as the inspiration behind it — into which the staff of a newspaper are drawn when in the opening chapter one of their reporters finds the missing murder weapon and is promptly killed himself. Whodunnit? And howmanydunnit? And, since the reporter only phoned in his discovery to the newspaper offices, howdidtheyknowtodunnit? So we’re in a beautiful GAD stew of dubious identities, questionable witnesses, extraneous murder weapons, fortunate coincidences, and elaborate misdirection. It’s a typical piece of classic-era writing, and sustains a generally high standard throughout in spite of the many hands not necessarily lightening the load.
So, in order of their first appearance…
You can’t help but feel that Dorothy L. Sayers deliberately took on the short end of this assignment, doing the grunt work to establish the necessary mystery in the opening chapter and having to the expositionally dump all over the final pages. I’m not a fan of Sayers’ work, but even I’ll admit that she’s a better author than the workings of this require — for one thing, the one-sided telephone call in the opening chapter is horrible, but not knowing what was said on the other end of the line becomes an important plot point later and so it had to be done this way. Nevertheless, Sayers clearly feels comfortable with the structure and argot of the newspaper business, probably not a million miles from the advertising offices in which she had worked herself, and the awkward phrasing of the opening is noticeably absent once the final pages come around.
By comparison, Agatha Christie is the one author who seems to shy in horror from any sort of professional setup: she is quick to move things onto canny character observations in personal settings rather than having to deal with the formal arrangements of any workplace (Mainly Conversation, as her Floating Admiral chapter had it):
“Quite so,” said the coroner again. Into these two words he put all the censure he was able to put. He bitterly regretted the limitations imposed by the police.
She captures both the small-minded bitterness of the maid Gladys Sharp and the ability of the newspaperman Denis Oliver to judge character in a heartbeat in the same set of actions, and in her two chapters not only gives plenty of speculation on explanations and motives to help clarify who’s who but also throws in both the most important clue and biggest piece of misdirection this narrative has. After the rocky waters of chapter 1, the ship is more than merely steadied, it is set on its way with Christie’s customary smoothness. Indeed, it is again unlikely that mere chance handed this role to this author.
E.C. Bentley deals much more in the psychology of the characters involved, using his two chapters to explore the actions of the two most likely suspects and giving a psychological profile of their unsuitability that still leaves room for the physical possibility of these men to be guilty. Oliver feels more of a character in Bentley’s hands — Christie used him very much as a foil for those he encounters — and the native cunning that would have been necessary as a newshound chasing down leads and reliant on the co-operation of those around him is captured very well indeed. With the exception of Crofts (and, yes, we’re coming to him) it’s Bentley who offers the most actual investigation in this investigation. That it falls to him to kill off one possible route is only lamentable because it gets left so late in the day…I mean, surely they’d seek to establish that [REDACTED] was actually [REDACTED] before then…?
It falls to Anthony Berkeley to be, if you’ll excuse my Anglo-Saxon, the shit-stirrer of the group. With so much in the way of character and action to cover in order to provide the necessary trappings of a GAD plot, Berkeley is really the only one who gets the chance to play with the interpretations of what is learned — raising questions of identity and, in the case of one unseen individual, existence. His second chapter has to do the necessary work in reversing the one-sided phone call from Sayers’ opening, which isn’t especially well-handled (or well-received) but you sort of feel that he’s been dealt a hand and so has to play the game. Anyone who can describe a witness being pressed for details until “as dry of information as an out-of-date Bradshaw” definitely has the wherewithal to set up that phone call a bit more adroitly.
And so to Freeman Wills Crofts, on whose shoulders falls the responsibility of showing how these murders are investigated by the, y’know, police. For all Crofts’ reputation for being a dullard fascinated only with timetables, I have to say that I enjoy his direct and realistic way of approaching these problems. He has sixteen pages in which to actually make the police investigation well-grounded, progressive, successful, and suitably misled until the key moment of revelation. Suffice to say there’s an alibi problem at the heart of it all — and not one you’ll really have a chance of solving, though that’s hardly his fault — and he, like Berkeley and Sayers, is phenomenally at ease describing the organisation of such an, er, organisation in a way that feels to the life even if it’s not. When Sayers turns his Inspector Smart into Basil Exposition for the final chapter, the policeman seems a whole lot less interesting than when Crofts has him pulling apart the stories of those involved…
Lastly, then, we have Clemence Dane who, in being unknown to me outside of The Floating Admiral, feels very much like the discovery of this undertaking. Not only does she have an excellent way with words…
The dead man came into her mind, and this time she could not drive him out. Indeed, she did not try. She had a feeling that the fog had come on purpose to shut her out from the world of the living, to create a private chamber in the heart of London. In it she and the dead man, so terribly alive in her mind, were to have their last interview.
…she also captures a real sense of the psychological unease that drives one character to certain industry, and captures some terrific era-appropriate details while doing so (if your ears aren’t pierced you can still wear earrings by getting them mounted on screws…? The mind boggles…). Dane’s two chapters fall rather more into a sort of suspense setting, I suppose, and as such should stick out from the more sleekly-developed detective plot around her. But there’s some genuine investment in what she writes, and an honest skill behind he use of characters and shifting points of view (a paragraph from the perspective of a dog, for instance, is actually a damn sight more compelling than you’re currently imagining it to be). if there was a single Dane novel in print or readily available I would have happily bought it on this evidence alone. Alas, guess what I discovered upon looking.
Pictured: Every single Clemence Dane book currently in print
Overall, then, ‘The Scoop’ is an enjoyable experiment that sees some of the finest proponents of the GAD arts turn their hand to something of a more experimental variety and largely succeed. It lacks the sturm und drang of The Floating Admiral in that book’s whirligig on-again-off-again flirting dismissal and re-admittance of clues and ideas, but then it’s also not as exhausting and so much easier to appreciate the different approaches each author brings on account of their contributions being kept to a (presumably broadcast-determined) shorter length. No classic for the ages, but fun if you can find it.