Puzzle for Fiends (1946) by Patrick Quentin

Given how much I have enjoyed my brief forays into Quentin’s work, I really need to make more of an effort to remember to return to his work a little more often. Today’s read is a case in point. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was getting into when I read The Saturday Review’s Criminal Record review of this title, which says of the book that ‘Duluth’s didoes with sultry females, his amnesiac deducing, and completely surprising solution, make easy, if wacky reading.’ They sum it up as ‘triumphant silliness.’ Having now read the book I can see where they were going, though I think ‘silliness’ overlooks the darker elements of the story. However, I should probably tell what the book is about…

The book opens with Iris departing to Tokyo for work, whilst her husband Peter Duluth has just been demobbed and is off for a get together in San Diego. The amount of alcohol Peter has consumed is mentioned more than once in those first two pages, as is the fact that he offers to give a young man a ride. This is not without reason as after this prologue the reader is confronted with a first-person narration from Peter, who wakes up in an unfamiliar bed. Yet his problems are more than his physical injuries, as he is now suffering from amnesia. Even worse he is confronted by “relations,” a mother, a wife, a sister, who we know he doesn’t have, yet who have taken upon themselves to take him to their home and claim that they are. So, what is their game? On top of figuring this out, in a situation which becomes a matter of life and death, Peter has to try and remember who he is. Along the way he begins to uncover the truth about the death of the man his “relations” are purporting was his father. But in this conspiracy of lies who can he trust? Who is friend and who is foe? Will he jump out of the frying pan of one problem straight into the fire of another?

Overall Thoughts

As my final rating shows this was a book I strongly enjoyed. I find Quentin’s structuring of the mystery refreshing and I think he did a good job of creating a narrative appropriate for someone who has detective skills, yet who is suffering from amnesia. Interestingly in some ways we know as much as Peter does, yet because we know his real identity, we are also a bit further forward than him and can soon identify some of the lies his “relations” try to feed him with.

What makes this mystery so intriguing is that Peter’s “relations” are not just hiding one secret, but almost a series of secrets in the manner of a Russian doll, and not all of the family members are aware of the full extent of them. This makes figuring out who Peter can trust all the more interesting and Quentin certainly pulls the rug from under the reader in this respect.

I also feel that Quentin is playing around with the HIBK/heroine in jeopardy formula of mystery writing, placing Peter in such a situation, where he is helpless and dependent on others, ironically (in terms of gender reversal), mostly on women. Quentin utilises the elements of danger and tension to great effect, making several lulls before the storm that finally erupts at the end of the novel. Yet the author also upends some of the woman in peril tropes. One moment of upending is particularly brilliant, as it is rooted in the sure knowledge that the reader will have swallowed a statement delivered very early on in the story. It’s just simply a point you wouldn’t question or be suspicious of.

What adds to the intricate layers of this plot is the personalities within the family group, as they engagingly grip you and contribute towards the story’s drama. Quentin also plays upon the assumptions we are likely to make about these characters and there is no clear dichotomy between friends and enemies, which helps to effectively muddy the investigative waters.

There are currently several copies online for under £5, so I would definitely recommend grabbing them while you can, as this was a highly enjoyable book, which combines an intriguing and unusual mystery with some engrossing characters.

Rating: 4.5/5

19 comments

  1. As I said over at the FB group, this book is a transitional entry in the Puzzle series and as such it is slightly controversial among Quentin fans. The orthodox-minded tend not to be fond of it as it is more suspense than detection, while the heterodox love it because of its radical departure from the formula prevailing in the previous books. Do I need to tell you which side I’m on? 😉

    I’ve always wondered whether PQ had read Traitor’s Purse before writing Puzzle for Fiends, as their book reads very much like a riff on Allingham’s concept even though the storylines and overall treatment are completely different. Amnesia was a hot thing in American crime writing at the time anyway, with almost every major writer of the period trying their hand at it. PFF I think is one of the best specimen of this interesting subgenre.

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    • I don’t feel I have read enough by Quentin to get particularly attached to one style of writing, but I enjoyed this one a lot. It’ll be interesting to see what I make of his earlier puzzle books. Though I’ve heard good things about them.
      I think you could divide mystery novels using amnesia as a plot device into two groups. The first group allow the reader through first person narration to experience what the character is going through as they try to remember who they are. The second group keep you more on the outside of the character, so part of the mystery is whether the character is genuinely suffering from amnesia. Conyth Little springs to mind with this latter group.

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  2. I haven’t read this one—it’s likely a book that I tried to get my hands on through the library system, but couldn’t, in the course of exploring the PQ oeuvre. One thing I recall is that “Patrick Quentin” was not always the same actual writer. Where does this one fit in, in terms of which writer wrote what?

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  3. Thanks for the review, which makes me think I should try to pick a second-hand copy cheaply. 🤓 To date, I’ve read “Puzzle for Players”, “Black Widow” and “Puzzle for Wantons” (with the suggestive alternative title, “Slay the Loose Women”); I still have “Death of the Maiden”, “Puzzle for Fools” and “Puzzle for Puppets” sitting on my TBR pile.

    So far, my experience of Patrick Quentin has been hit-and-miss, with “Wantons” as the definite hit – it was very good, in fact. 😊 And so I’m encouraged to hear that “Fiends” is a strong one too!

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    • I never knew you were so well stocked with Quentin titles! Good to know PFW is a good read. I think, whilst the puzzle is unconventional in PFF, there is still plenty of it to go at. So hopefully you might enjoy that one too!

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  4. Haven’t read this one yet, but QPQ is an author I think you will like. I’ve read 9 now I think, and while there is inevitably some variation in quality I have not read a clunker yet (nor a masterpiece either).

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  5. So I just finished this, and liked it a lot. I cannot say it surprised me, but it is so vividly told that it makes a fun read.
    A few stray comments.
    It is so very much of its time, even to the sly hints at louche goings on. It reminds me a bit of Leave Her To Heaven for example.
    It’s a typical QPQ in its blend of Peyton Place, screwball comedy, and mystery. Not much puzzle this time but some nicely dovetailed plotting one can admire. Most of the others I have read are more conventional. I think you would like Puzzle For Pilgrims, which is in the same vein as this one, but darker and more intense.
    I rate this one B+ — so even better QPQ books await you!

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    • I’ve not read enough by QP to have a strong feel for what’s normal or not normal for them, so I probably enjoyed this more, not having those comparisons. I’m certainly on the look out for more QP so I’ll keep PFP in mind. Also keen to try S S Murder, but it might be some time until I find a reasonably priced copy of it.

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