The Alphabet of Crime community meme over at the Mysteries in Paradise blog has reached the letter P, and my second nomination this week, also eligible under the guidelines of Bev’s 2011 Mystery Readers Challenge, is …
PUZZLE FOR PLAYERS by Patrick Quentin
In 1936 the new ‘Inner Sanctum’ imprint from publishers Simon & Schuster was inaugurated with Puzzle for Fools, which not only was the first book published under the new ‘Patrick Quentin’ byline but also served to introduce a new kind of literary detective. Set in Dr Lenz’s mental asylum, we meet alcoholic theatrical producer Peter Duluth while he is undergoing treatment for depression. Unlike the equally hard-drinking Bill Crane, introduced the previous year in Jonathan Latimer’s Murder in the Madhouse (1935), Duluth really is an inmate and not an undercover detective masquerading as one. Duluth was Broadway’s golden boy but after the tragic death of his wife he hit the bottle and his career has gone downhill. Now he is in the sanitarium and in the course of his stay he helps solve a couple of murders; but more importantly he meets fellow patient, Iris Pattison, and the two fall in love. Although a great little book, Puzzle for Fools is not the best in the series, so here I have plumped for the follow-up, which apart from being a superior mystery also has the benefit of having another ‘P’ in the title …
The key to the Duluth series is that Peter and Iris do not see them selves as a pair of sleuths in the Nick and Nora Charles mould (like the Lockridge’s Mrs and Mrs North or Marco Page’s Joel and Garda Glass in Fast Company). They do not in fact really ‘detect’, amass clues or interrogating suspects. Instead they are depicted in a much more grounded and even fairly plausible way as a couple with everyday problems but who none the less occasionally get embroiled in sticky situations.. As the series progressed we would see them marry, separate and eventually reconcile across a series of nine novels. In their final appearance, My Son the Murderer (1954), they become subsidiary characters to the story of Peter’s brother-in-law and his son.
Following their initial appearance, we pick up the story in Puzzle for Players (1938), with Peter now firmly on the comeback trail, five years after the death of his wife. He plans to make Iris, to whom he is now engaged, a broadway star in a new play for which Dr Lenz is the financial backer. The play, by first time author Henry Prince, is a melodrama set during a flood entitled ‘Troubled Waters’, which predictably enough proves to be all too apt a title. Things immediately get off to a bad start when the production is unceremoniously dumped into the rundown, rat-infested Dragonet theatre, a venue that hasn’t had a hit in years and which is reputedly haunted. This is almost immediately borne out when old-timer Lionel Comstock initially refuses to even enter the venue. Duluth is able to persuade him onto the stage where, in the time-honoured tradition of the theatrical mysteries, there will be as much drama off the stage as on.
In two seconds, Mirabelle had set that dreary theater on fire; it was Bankhead and bitters, Cornell with a kick.
The two stars, Mirabelle Rue and Conrad Wessler hate each other’s guts from the get go and both, like Peter, are staging comebacks: Mirabelle after a nervous collapse after the end of her abusive marriage to fellow actor Roland Gates and Wessler, a refugee making his American debut following the Nazi invasion of Austria, who has been recovering from the plane crash that left him physically and psychologically scarred. Lenz is in fact still treating Wessler’s brother, who was also injured in the plane crash but who now seems to have tipped over into insanity. To this pot are added Mac, the theatre doorman, who has a tragic history linked to the theatre; the appearance of a mysterious Siamese cat; Gerald Gwynne, who seems absurdly protective of Mirabelle but also to carry a torch for Iris; George Kramer, the playwright’s uncle, who is not only a friend of the odious Gates who also turns up, thinking he should have Wessler’s role opposite his ex-wife – but also seems to have blackmail as a sideline to his work as a photographer; and most strange of all, a spectre apparently haunting the mirror of the star dressing room. It is the latter – manifesting itself as the reflected face of a woman who strangled herself in the theatre’s main dressing room back in 1902 – who apparently scares Comstock so much that he has a heart attack on stage. A second death, following an apparent accident during the fumigation to get rid of the rats after an attempt to use traps is sabotaged, seems to spell the end of Duluth’s comeback.
A few months ago we had been just that – a bunch of cyphers making a loud noise in the void.
This book, written in a light and breezy style in the first person, offers a wide variety of pleasures, not least of which is a real desire to find out if the play will manage to be put on despite all the disasters backstage; if Peter and Iris will make it as a couple (they are desperate to get married but Dr Lenz has warned against it); and, as the pressure mounts, we begin to be worry that Peter won’t be able to stand up to the strain and go back to his drinking. The emphasis on the personal is what really makes this novel stand out. The real detective of the story are neither Peter nor iris but actually Dr Lenz, who employs some decidedly questionable tactics as part of his therapeutic model. indeed, as Lenz is backing a show that is populated with a host of neurotic actors, the entire enterprise can be read as an extension of Lenz’s activities at his clinic. If this were one of the later Ellery Queen novels, the good Doctor could very well have been ultimately revealed as a secret manipulator behind the various criminal acts perpetrated in the story! Instead we are presented with something more naturalistic, in which the stage proves to be a proving ground for both heroes and villains as Duluth and some of his equally neurotic friends are given a chance, perhaps their last, the make a break with the tragedies of their past and begin life anew.
If this seems impossibly heavy for a 1930s whodunit, readers should rest assured as text and subtext are handled equally with subtlety, humour and intelligence by ‘Quentin’ (one the pseudonyms used by writing partner Richard Wilson Webb and Hugh Wheeler). Thus, even if some of the story is a bit implausible the various puzzles, including the ghostly apparition in the mirror, are all ingeniously explained – twice in fact, with the first explanation being undermined at the halfway mark when the main suspect becomes the next victim. Along with a satisfying complex plot, and a really well-hidden murderer whose identity is only revealed on the last page, we also get to really engage and empathise with our hero as he grapples with his inner demons and has, therefore, plausibly to leave the real detective work to the professionals. When the true villain is revealed, he is as surprised as the reader.
The Patrick Quentin books featuring Peter and Iris seem to have fallen somewhat out of favour in recent years and very few of them, if any, are actively in print in English. This is a real shame as they are well above average and Puzzle for Players in one of the best of the series.