This is my second round robin novel of the year, the first being the wonderful The Sinking Admiral (2016). This is not another Detection Club effort, though it is erroneously sometimes said to be one, as not all the writers were a part of the club. I was intrigued to give this book a go as not only did it include Sayers, but it also included a number of writers I had not tried before. The book was conceived by James W. Drawbell, editor of the Sunday Chronicle and Williams Lees, a feature editor of the Allied Newspapers ‘got it done’. The preface intimates there were difficulties in getting the plot to have cohesion due to some writers refusing to have their work altered and apparently despite each writer being given notes from the previous ones, each writer decided to take their own course. John Chancellor had the trying job of making it work and in the end had to write a prologue to help ameliorate the problem. With such an opening I did feel a little wary and also curious as to who the difficult writers were. At the end of each chapter the writers’ notes are included.
The story begins with Emma Farland, a widowed middle age woman who tyrannises her niece Millie Pink and even more so since she became mysteriously ill. Emma Farland believes she is being poisoned but can’t decide who the culprit is. Her three main contenders are Millie, John Farland (the son of her late husband’s younger brother) and Penelope Cheedle (the daughter of Emma’s primary doctor and also John’s fiancée) and Emma changes her will constantly to try and see who it might be. The doctors are puzzled by Emma’s symptoms and question how real some of them are. Emma’s lawyer decides to settle the matter by having Nurse Ponting take care of her. Yet Nurse Ponting never makes it to Emma, being found dying from an overdose of Sleepine in the local train station’s toilets, the day she is supposed to arrive. The events running up to this leave it open as to who might have had a hand in this death. Why was she bumped off? Does it connect with Emma’s ill health? When death strikes again this question seems to be answered. With each writer taking the story in a different direction, no character is above suspicion and not everyone is what they seem.
On the whole this was a quick and easy read and Dorothy L Sayers who writes the opening chapter sets up an interesting mystery and I feel Freeman Wills Crofts and Valentine Williams continue on from this well. However from this point onwards and particularly when readers come to the penultimate chapter, the plot begins to have a few issues, in particular you can start seeing plot discrepancies and the reader does start wondering why characters have done or not done certain things. And I wonder whether the writer’s notes at the end of this chapter make this a bigger problem, highlighting the areas to come which won’t add up. Although on the other hand reading the notes were very interesting showing how the writers interpreted the work gone before them. Often the later writers are not keen to continue some of the threads created by Sayers and Crofts’, though one wonders if maybe they had used them the story might have held together more. Initially it was quite interesting to see the writers prioritise and implicate different characters, but ultimately the last two writers were not up to the job in my opinion of really bringing the story to a successful and satisfying end. In particular the guilty party are an unsatisfactory choice and the proving of their guilt was too rushed. Furthermore I am unsure whether the prologue John Chancellor wrote is a benefit or hindrance to the book. Additionally late on in the story a young female is introduced into the book, with a semi-sleuthing role, but unfortunately they were added into too late and the novel is too short for this addition to work well. In some ways she is a bit of deus ex machina, which again makes the ending not so satisfying.
Finally another issue I did notice with this book is that because the characters needed to left quite open so subsequent writers can make them innocent or guilty, they didn’t really have any depth and their personalities were not explored much. Again I wonder if some of the writers in the middle had started defining the characters more, making them less open to being changed, whether the characterisation may have become stronger, as well as the final solution. So all in all I think this book is best left to the crime fiction fanatic. It is not one you desperately need to complete your collections with, though if you can get a copy cheap like I did, it may be of some interest and although there are issues with the characters, the narrative styles throughout are strong and enjoyable.