Opening Passage: There are several different things that one could identify as 'the beginning' of the book: Sayers's Introduction, Chesterton's Prologue, Whitechurch's Chapter I. Given the peculiar character of the book as a unified narrative with divided authorship, and the fact that much of the interest of the book consists in how the different mystery authors come together, I choose to treat Sayers's Introduction, which explains the rules by which it was written, as the 'real' beginning of the work:
When members of the official police force are invited to express an opinion about the great detectives of fiction, they usually say with a kindly smile: "Well, of course, it's not the same for them as it is for us. The author knows beforehand who did the job, and the great detective has only to pick up the clues that are laid down for him. It's wonderful," they indulgently add, "the clever ideas these authors hit upon, but we don't think they would work very well in real life." (p. 1)
Summary: A mystery work written by thirteen different authors, each taking a chapter and able to take the story anywhere as long as they respect what came before, is truly a mystery, even to the authors. Canon Whitechurch's first chapter gives us the basic puzzle. A man, the Admiral, was stabbed to death. He is found in a boat which had drifted to the shore. There is no blood in the boat. The Admiral was last seen, it seems, crossing the river in his own boat, having had dinner with his daughter and the Vicar. But the boat in which the Admiral's corpse has been found is not his own boat. It is the Vicar's boat, and nobody knows the course of events between when the Admiral was last seen alive in his own boat and when his corpse was discovered elsewhere in the Vicar's boat. Nor does anyone have any obvious motive to stab the Admiral to death; nor does there seem an obvious explanation for why anyone, after having stabbed him to death, would put him in the Vicar's boat and set it adrift. What's more, the little village of Lingham where all this happens is a tiny insular place, in which could have lived for a decade and still be seen as an outsider, so Inspector Rudge will have a bit of work to do to get people to open up.
In many ways, the course of the book is determined by the manner of its production. A mystery writer puts a twist or two into his or her story. Twelve mystery writers in a row (excluding Chesterton, who writes the Prologue that is supposed to intrigue but doesn't contribute to the actual course of the narrative), writing twelve chapters, means that there is a twist or two or three in every single chapter. The inevitable result is that this is a book of red herrings. Over and over and over again we are led up a path only to find it shut down in front of us. The obvious suspect turns out not to be in the right place. People keep turning up in places where they shouldn't be able to be at times they shouldn't be able to be there. Evidence will point to one person at one point, then the same evidence will swing around and suggest someone else. The result is a fascinating puzzle mystery, although, despite the immense talent on display, it is probably too bewildering to be counted as a great mystery story.
The authors of each chapter were expected to have a particular ending in mind, and we have some of their anticipated endings provided as an appendix. It underlines a point about the narrative, which is that so many authors guarantees that the very nature of the mystery story changes over the course of the book. We have an entire range of approaches on display, from the highly systematic writers (John Rhode, Dorothy Sayers, and Ronald Knox, in Chapters V, VII, and VIII, respectively) to writers who are mostly larking (Agatha Christie definitely, who in Chapter IV doesn't move the story much but gives the book its funniest character, the infinitely voluble Mrs. Davis, and whose anticipated ending is so off the wall that she's pretty obviously trying to find the most unlikely solution to the problem as it existed up to that point; perhaps also Clemence Dane, in Chapter XI, who seems most interested in the character dynamics).
The personal preferences of the authors also play an obvious role. This is seen a bit in the character of Inspector Rudge, whose character mostly holds together, but is nonetheless not quite consistent -- the Rudge of Sayers comes across as more literary, and the Rudge of Knox as more methodical, than he does in other chapters, for instance. Likewise, each author has things he or she is not willing to tolerate, or a suspect that he or she thinks should not be a suspect, or a preferred method for handling some problem or others. The most obvious case is seen in the fact that the early chapters strongly suggest that the murder had something to do with the Admiral's past in China; this builds and builds until it hits Fr. Knox, famous among other things for laying down the rule that the solution of your mystery should never depend on a Chinaman -- 'Chinaman' being a stand-in for any foreigner who has no obvious reason to be in the tale, but here put to the literal test by the burgeoning reliance on a past scandal in Hong Kong. As Knox says in his anticipated solution, perhaps with some asperity, "It appears that Admiral Penistone, Sir W. Denny, Walter Fitzgerald, Ware, and Holland are all intimate with China, which seems overdoing it" (p. 296). So unsurprisingly, Knox begins diverting the story elsewhere. The background is already set, so it still has some influence on the future course of things, but the focus definitely shifts in the latter part of the book.
The structure of the story is also constrained in some ways by the nature of telling a mystery story. It's probable from the beginning that Neddy Ware is of some importance, somehow, because he's the first person mentioned, finds the body, and provides the first crucial information about the tides that gives an inkling of where the Admiral's corpse might have been put into the Vicar's boat. The writers, however, don't have much agreement on how exactly he plays a role. It became very obvious very quickly to the writers, and at some point becomes obvious to the reader, that the only possible way to account for some of the evidence is that some people must at some point be impersonating some other people; but they have different views about who is impersonating whom. It likewise becomes clear that some of the characters, like Ware and the Vicar, know more than they are saying; but the writers have different assessments of things like whether they realize that they know some additional crucial information or whether they are deliberately keeping something back, and if so, whether they are doing so for innocent reasons or guilty reasons, and, if the latter, whether they are the relevant guilty reasons or some other guilty reasons. I found all of this aspect of the novel fascinating. For a while I've wanted to write a mystery story that specifically focused on this multi-branching nature of inference, so it was particularly neat to see some of the twentieth century's greatest mystery writers struggling through exactly this aspect of the story.
The plot is tangled, inevitably, but it's really characterization that struggles in a book like this. I mentioned already the inconsistencies of Inspector Rudge. These are not too serious, in part because Rudge's role gives him more external coherence than any other character in the book. But other characters, shifting in and out of the suspicion spotlight, have ultimate characterizations that can only be considered a bit muddled and outlandish. The Vicar in particular began to exasperate me, because his actions, which often play a role in adding new complications to the mystery, sometimes border on the inexplicable. There's explanation provided, certainly, but at least far as this reader was concerned, the Vicar seemed sometimes to come across as somewhere between being stupid and having a a personality disorder. He is the most egregious case, or so I thought, but a lot of people in this novel act in weird ways, because that's the only way the writers could find to solve the weird problems that the twists of previous writers had created.
Favorite Passage: From Edgar Jepson's Chapter X:
"But the very last place that anyone who'd committed the murder would want to be seen in, is about here," protested Hempstead.
"M'm," said the Inspector. "If you'd seen the silly things murderers do that I've seen. Besides, there are some people who call themselves criminologists, who say that a murdered always goes back to the scene of his crime."
"Does he now?"
"No, he doesn't," said the Inspector. (p. 192)
Recommendation: Recommended, particularly if you like puzzle mysteries.
Certain Members of the Detection Club, The Floating Admiral, Charter Books (New York: 1980).