Source: Review Copy (Harper Collins)
Multi-author texts always interest me, seeing different styles meld together into one narrative. An added bonus is that members of The Detection Club have created this one so I was keen to dive in. A number of the contributors (Janet Laurence, Kate Charles, Natasha Cooper, David Roberts, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Tim Heald, Michael Jecks, L C Tyler, Stella Duffy, Martin Edwards, Simon Brett, Laura Wilson, Peter Lovesey and Michael Ridpath), were new to me, including one which is the same as my sister’s name (very confusing moment). Simon Brett’s introduction was good, describing the writing process and how it diverged from the writing process used for The Floating Admiral (1931) (another detection club creation).
The Sinking Admiral (2016) begins in the seaside village of Crabwell, where a TV documentary is being made on the plight of the rural English pub. Although a seaside village generates a rosy mental image, the writer of the opening chapter undercuts this expectation with grim weather and a look at people’s desire to be on TV at any cost. There is also the strong hint that the documentary being done is less about saving pubs than showing people in a ridiculous and embarrassing light. The pub the documentary is focused on is the Admiral Byng Pub, owned by mysterious Geoffrey Horatio Fitzsimmons (commonly called the admiral) and is run by bar manager Amy Walpole and also includes a cook named Meriel Dane. Ben Milne is in charge of the production and from the beginning he is shown to be a man who may seem charming but is not necessarily to be trusted and Walpole is certainly not taken in by him. Aside from the documentary there is the additional strain of the financial straits of the pub.
From the very first chapter we know that the admiral is destined to die making the events up to his death of particular interest. He receives a catalogue of visitors to his office for unknown reasons and he also tells Walpole that he wants to have an important chat with her the next day, when certain secrets will be revealed. In fact he buys people a number of the rounds, saying it is his last hurrah, even regaling his audience with tales of hidden treasure. It is no surprise when the admiral is found later that night dead in his dingy, assumed to have drowned. A typed suicide note seems to satisfy DI Cole, yet Walpole is convinced that it is murder, knowing how much of a technophobe the admiral was.
Walpole, who has had a painful past, initially has a quite antagonistic relationship with Milne, though this begins to thaw when she allies herself with him to help solve the mystery around the admiral’s death, despite the fact that Milne is obsessed with how he can use this event to boost his own career. They begin by finding out who visited the admiral on the day of his death, revealing a number of secrets about the admiral and also a number of reasons why someone might have wanted to kill him. These visitors ranging from the local vicar and MP, to a hedge fund millionaire are then questioned by the pair, causing Walpole especially to revaluate how she perceives the admiral. A will change, a book deal and buried treasure also feature in our amateur’s investigations, as well as the fact that it seems that the admiral had much more money than previously thought.
The admiral’s death has characters wondering whether their own secrets will be revealed and there is the suggestion that some characters know much more about the admiral than they are telling, which of course means further death ensues in quite a dramatic fashion, before the mystery is finally solved.
There is a great deal of variety in the book’s characters which I liked and I enjoyed discovering all the connections between them. Walpole is an interesting protagonist to follow as she is not always perfect, sometimes being quite dismissive of other people’s problems. The police characters, DI Cole and DC Chesterton, are also fun to read about as they are quite comical, being quite far behind our amateur sleuths. DI Cole is an unlikeable and patronising character, providing a good foil for the kinder and smarter Chesterton and they have a bickering relationship. Another character which interested me was Ianthe Berkeley, an editor. On first appearance she comes across as a bit garish, but later on her more vulnerable side is revealed, which was unexpected. Her metafictional tirade on detective fiction is also very amusing to read. Part of me wonders whether she is a cowed and much older version of another character in the book, Tracy Crofts, a flirtatious teenager with attitude.
Spoofs, Allusions and General Hilarity
The opening chapter for me included a lot of spoofing which I liked, having ITV do a seedier version of the BBC’s Who do you think you are? Moreover, the cook, Dane, who is keen to become a TV chef, ends up spoofing such TV programmes in her dialogue to camera. Examples such as this reminded me of Victoria Wood’s sketch work which often spoofed TV programmes and the media.
Literary allusion abound in this book and I enjoyed spotting them, ranging from Cinderella to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). One of my favourite ones though is an allusion to Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations (1861) when Walpole says, ‘Don’t! The way I’m going, I’ll be working till I drop, I’ll be the barmaid equivalent of Miss Havisham.’ Got to say that is a mental image which is going to last a long time! There are also allusions to the Vicar of Dibley and to Golden Age fiction, including Knox’s Decalogue, the latter of which is superbly satirised. Those of you who are familiar with Golden Age detective fiction will have spotted that a lot of the characters have names which reference Golden Age authors or their characters and this happens throughout the text. A few examples include the Reverend Victoria Whitechurch, Ianthe Berkeley (which references two authors), DI Cole, DC Chesterton, Willie Sayers, Griffiths Bentley, Greg Jepson, Greta Knox, Jimmy Wade and Jed Rhode.
All in all this was definitely a good read which I would recommend, being funny and very entertaining. Credit should also go to the contributors for how they have managed to create a very coherent, yet complex tale. I think the area weakest for me was the ending as personally the motivation behind the crime wasn’t as convincing as I felt it should be. Moreover, the ending was a little rushed, but different readers of course may not find this.
Puzzle Doctor – The Sinking Admiral