#949: Death in Five Boxes – Murder Begins at Home in No Flowers by Request (1953)

The Detection Club — a membership-by-election dining club for detective fiction writers, whose origins and early days were traced so entertainingly by Martin Edwards in The Golden Age of Murder (2015) — has produced several collaborative efforts down the years, and it’s to one of those that we turn today.

As with Behind the Screen (1930) and The Scoop (1931), No Flowers by Request (1953) has been written by a set of famous names, each taking on a section before passing it onto the next person to continue, and eventually complete, the story. As with those previous two titles, it has also been collected with another written at about the same time and under the same conditions, Crime on the Coast (1954), and, weirdly, both Gollancz braces put the later title first — I’ll get to the first (second?) story soon, I just like doing things in order where possible.

The eleven instalments, with four authors writing two adjacent chapters each, and Christianna Brand writing the final three, were published in the Daily Sketch newspaper in 1953 — I can’t find the exact dates — and I’d be fascinated to know how much planning went in ahead of time. Was this like the collaborative novel The Floating Admiral (1931) in that no-one knew what had happened until they read the previous instalments, or did the five women gather and discuss the general shape of this beforehand, as I understand happened with The Scoop? My Gollancz edition, pictured above, contains nothing beyond a contents page and the full texts of both stories, so if anyone has any insights into this they’d be greatly appreciated.

Where are the dogs, Jim?

It falls to Dorothy L. Sayers to introduce the setup and characters: the recently-widowed Mrs. Merton passing up the offers of moving in with her grown up children (“I know exactly what ‘making my home with them’ would be like: unpaid domestic help to Julia; unpaid sewing-woman to Dickie; unpaid nurse to the children; unpaid kennelmaid to two spoilt Pekes and an autocratic Siamese cat…”) to instead take up a vacancy as a cook-housekeeper for Mr. Carrington, his invalid wife, and their injured nephew and live-in niece.

“You would be looked on as one of the family, of course.”

I said I should much prefer to be looked on as a cook-housekeeper.

And so we head to the “off-white elephant” of Hallering Old Rectory (“too large for a private family and too small for an institution to run economically: old enough to be inconvenient and not old enough to be picturesque”) and get introduce, via Sayers’ wonderfully economical prose, to the menage: Trent, injured in a flying accident, the inscrutable Philippa, gardener Joy Barnslow, and Nurse Cutler who tends to the needs of Mrs. Carrington. It’s a pleasingly classic setup, with only a hint that there is something lingering in Philippa’s history to contribute to the plot, leaving the ground open for the next author to build on these clearly-limned foundations.

Frankly, I would have been happy to read more about the cat Sennacherib, “a stout gentleman in a very handsome dress suit”, but everyone else has other ideas.

Where are the dogs?

The pot is stirred by E.C.R. Lorac, who lacks Sayers’ talent for a sinister underlayer and instead has Mrs. Merton reflecting on the “Odd…Queer…Peculiar…Pathological…Neurotic…Maladjusted…” air of the place. It is Lorac who introduces the murder and throws in with it a sense of something odd that will need to be explained, and it’s this little touch — to do with the position of the body — which makes me wonder how much planning was done in advance. The Floating Admiral was delightful for how different authors would throw in some considerations and dismiss others, only for later chapters by someone else to resurrect that which had supposedly been dealt with, and I’d love to know if Lorac was introducing this complication purely for the fun of it or because it had already been agreed as part of the solution.

Anyway, as someone who finds the raft of Lorac reprints that seems to comprise about 47% of the British Library Crime Classics range difficult to sanction, these chapters did little to enliven my interest in reading more by her. They’re…fine, but nothing more.

So Gladys Mitchell has a relatively easy job following on, and uses her time to introduce potential leads for motive by moving the characters into explicit positions regarding each other. It felt to me that Mitchell was the only one besides Sayers to really get a grip on Mrs. Merton’s personality and sense of displacement…

The affectionate terms now use by charwomen, shopgirls and bus conductors will never really become part of my life. To me they always convey the veiled insult implicit in the theory that Jack is a good as his master. Of course he isn’t — if he were he would surely be a master on his own account instead of a paid employee.

Mitchell is also the first to give us one suspect who we can definitely dismiss, by revealing the nature of that lingering history of Philippa’s, drawing our narrator more into the lives of these people and so investing her for the first time in the outcome. As with Sayers, the more of Mitchell I read in short form the more I find I like about how she writes; maybe I’ll come around to the charms of their novels in due course, but for now it’s just pleasing to recognise well-structured prose when one sees it.

“Sorry we’re late, there was a cow on the road.”

Anthony Gilbert is the one to develop this into a fully-fledged detective plot, turning a lantern on the matter of motive and beginning to unpick the various movements and suspicions hanging around everyone. I don’t know what else to say about these chapters except that 1) she does a good job righting a ship that could easily have drifted wide of its intended channel, and 2) they’re filled with so much idiomatic and phonetic speech to that she clearly felt this to be a strength of her own writing. The final line of her second chapter, however, is hilarious in how completely it throws down the gauntlet to her successor.

Gilbert had reckoned without Christianna Brand, however, who immediately seizes on an aspect of Sayer’s opening — if there was no collusion, then this is a brilliant piece of ret-conning — and then twists what she’s been handed before twisting it again with magnificent aplomb and divining an answer that ignores certain events but makes sense of the overwhelming majority of what has come before. It’s far from an earth-shattering conclusion, but the acuity with which Brand up-ends expectations and works in so much of what has been casually tossed out before is very pleasing to see. Not for nothing did Brand get this final section, and she brings with it the same sense of creativity and invention that saw her additional “solution” to The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929) by Anthony Berkeley prove such an enjoyable flourish.

The final few lines are a bit odd, though. Whatever’s going on there?

Dogs!

As a whole, No Flowers by Request is difficult to get too excited about. It’s difficult not to feel that with fewer hands in the pot — Sayers setting it up, Brand finishing it off — it could have been a little more notable, but equally I can see the appeal of this from the perspective of the people involved: the game-playing aspect of having to work with what you’re given (if, as I keep saying, that’s really what happened…) would have appealed to these women at a time when the crime novel was very much taking over from the puzzlish delights of the Golden Age. As a throwback, and for fans of the authors involved, it has its merits, but don’t bankrupt yourself getting a copy.

~

See also

Aidan @ Mysteries Ahoy!: I do think [No Flowers by Request] is easily the more successful of the two stories here. It is not a perfect work and I can’t shake the feeling that any one of these authors given the premise to work with on their own (and an extra hundred pages) might have created something even more imaginative and satisfying but it is a pretty successful collaboration that does at least represent its authors.

7 thoughts on “#949: Death in Five Boxes – Murder Begins at Home in No Flowers by Request (1953)

  1. I’ve read Crime on the Coast & No Flowers by Request, but have no recollection of No Flowers by Request and only remember being annoyed how Carr’s perfect setup was turned into a shabby, second-rate thriller. Not the finest Detection Club collaboration.

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    • A review of Crime on the Coast will goyp next week, and I’ll say that NFbR is certainly the more successful of the two. The talents seems to even out more here, whereas in its companion piece there are…peaks and troughs.

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      • Yeah, the peaks being Carr’s opening chapters and the troughs everything that came after it. And they reduced Carr’s setup to lipstick smeared on a pig.

        I think the best Detection Club collaboration is Six Against the Yard with Ask a Policeman coming second on the strength of the crossover element and writers trading each others detectives. The Floating Admiral is a distant third, but consider it to be triumph of Anthony Berkeley than a truly clever team effort. Berkeley is the only one who had his working boots on and tidied up the whole mess so neatly, you can almost believed they planned it that way.

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        • Oh, Floating Admiral is such a hoot, though. The chapters by Crofts and Rhode and Knox are hilarious in their out-of-step-ness with everyone else. And the solutions at the end are almost as much value as the story itself.

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          • Agreed, Floating Admiral was a deeply enjoyable time for how much everyone kept trying to overthrow or reintroduce what came before, and for how wildly the contributions varied in tone and style. I really should revisit it…

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  2. I have a 1987 Berkeley paperback edition of this, which I bought for the Carr story. I don’t think I noticed that Brand was featured, and it’s cool to hear that she gets the final few chapters in No Flowers by Request.

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    • It’s the best place for her, too, as she has the acuity to play around with what I suspect were the expectations of her fellow contributors. It adds a lovely element of joy to the final stages of an already very enjoyable tale.

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