#134: A Puzzle for Fools (1936) by Patrick Quentin

Puzzle for FoolsYou’re writing a detective novel during the most productive and creative period that the genre has ever gone through, so pay attention — the tropes aren’t tropes yet, they’re still ingredients, and the standard mix requires the following: a murder or two, an amateur detective, a closed circle of suspects, an imminent sense of threat for our hero to fret over and be dismissed by the professional police, a love interest who must fall under suspicion before our hero realises she just might be his soul-mate…any questions?  Okay, off you go.  Keep the dunnage to a minimum, avoid long-winded and namby-pamby descriptions — this is entertainment, remember — and for pity’s sake keep it light.

And so, with this advice ringing in their ears, the duo of Richard Webb and Hugh Wheeler who made up the nom de plume Patrick Quentin at this stage give us this on page 3 of A Puzzle for Fools:

I don’t know whether all drunks get the same symptoms, but without stimulants or sedatives I just felt scared.  And it wasn’t a question of pink rats or purple elephants.  It was just this frightened fear of being alone in the dark; the violent need of someone to hold my hand and say: “It’s all right, Peter, I’m here.  It’s all right.”

Not so much with the lightness, then.  But I’ll tell you something: goddamn I love Peter Duluth.  It takes some courage to make a recovering alcoholic who has voluntarily checked himself into a sanitarium the protagonist of your detective novel, and with Duluth we have the precise mix of self-loathing (“I managed to get some cereal down without kidding myself the milk was rye.”), sardonic asides (“Apparently there’s no one who inspires more gratuitous confidences than an alcoholic in a mental home.”), and mettle (“It was a vile thing to exploit the frailties of this poor bewildered creature, to capitalize the weakness of my fellow patients.  But the murderer had done so, and had forced me to imitate him.  That was another score I had against him.”) needed to make it work.

He convinces as a character who would get involved in the murders when they happen, but perhaps more crucially as a human being who is awake to the pain and fear and confusion that his fellow patients are subject to.  And those other patients come off by and large as people to, with Quentin evidently aware of the risk being taken in seeming to exploit the setting at the expense of the issues such a milieu raises.  Staff and inmates alike, they are realised both as people in a difficult situation and inside of this given more than enough scope to be suspect.  As an ensemble piece, this is actually pretty flawless — the workings of the sanitarium come about in a clear manner, with everyone having their role and their space to feature in the plot.  No sudden sidelining of Geoffrey Exposition for eight chapters only for him to crop up suddenly with the key piece of specialised knowledge; these people are on top of each other all the time, and it really, really works.

The plot promises a puzzle up front and perhaps there’s an element of self-reproach in that title, because it’s not the most complex puzzle you’ll ever encounter.  It’s good — cleanly motivated, fair play in all but a few minor aspects, and developed at an intriguing pace — but you’ll doubtless spot the guilty party in spite of a solid attempt to steer you off-track, and this doubtless comes as a result of keeping everything in such a closed setting.  There’s also an element of Roger Sheringhamming (it’s a verb, look it up) in Duluth’s final summing up which is absolutely perfect, and reveals Quentin to have a very clear idea of how they see this series working (wow, that is astonishingly general; I’m just being careful to preserve this for you).

So the plot is where this falls down for me — not the plotting, just the level of complexity.  Outside of that, the only major issue I had with it was the Inevitable Romance — it all feels…rather sudden, especially given how untrustworthy Duluth is quick to point out the emotional responses of his fellow patients could be.  If anything, it would be nice to see something made of this sudden over-committment on his part — that absolute conviction that the lady in question is indeed his soul-mate would surely be rather disquieting to the lady herself — and it would have fit in perfectly with the delicate emotional state of Duluth and the errors he sometimes makes.

But, well, falling short on a couple of points at least gives them something to improve in future volumes.  All I need to do now is find the bloody things…

star filledstar filledstar filledstarsstars

I submit this review for the Golden Age Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt at My Reader’s Block under the category Shadowy Figure.

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19 thoughts on “#134: A Puzzle for Fools (1936) by Patrick Quentin

  1. I am a big Quentin fan but like you, when I first read this (3 decades ago, seen it) I also found the plot a bit thin and eady to solve – but the Duluths are great characters and this is a great series so stuck with it and in sequence of you can.

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    • A lot of time went into tracking this one down following John putting up a post about a later Patrick Quentin book over at Pretty Sinister. I’m hoping the rest of them prove easier to come by…but thankfiully have plenty of books to occupy me in the meantime.

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        • Yeah, it could be said that there are aspects of buyng secondhand books in which I make life difficult for myself, but I’ll save you the trauma. Really appreciate the offer, though, many thanks. Let me see how I get on — no rush, as I’ve only just read this one — and I may take you up on that if I’m still floundering in a few months.

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  2. I found the solution a bit absurd ! The culprit has too many skills.

    SPOILER ALERT !

    He is a very good ventriloquist. He can imitate the voice of anyone. He can fake catalepsy like a Hindu fakir. He is a good contortionist and escape artist. He is also a doctor.
    While watching the film, he fakes catalepsy and is rigid. At the same time, he is able to throw a scream towards the back. (Is this possible ?) In the ensuing chaos, he stabs a person with a knife, removes the knife, wipes off fingerprints with a kerchief, puts the knife in the hands of another person and goes back to his fake rigidity. All this without being noticed. Highly unbelievable !
    I agree with your rating of 3 stars.

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    • Santosh I mean this most sincerely: I think nothing would cheer me up more at the end of a week than you starting a blog in which you pull apart the abundance of coincidences in novels like this. It reminds me of talking to a friend about the movie Prometheus and being in hysterics for about an hour as he spiralled through all the things about it that got increasingly ridiculous.

      I suppose that I’m such a simple soul I miss these pilings up of convenience a lot of the time. But you have a very genuine talent for hilariously distilling them down to their essential nonsense. It is welcome here for as long as you wis to keep doing it — many thanks!

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  3. Quentin is an author I have been meaning to try, though based on your review I perhaps shouldn’t start with this one? Is there any you’d recommend? And are some of them vaguely easy to get a hold of without the need to rob a bank?

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    • This is the only Quentin I’ve read, but from what Setgio and Brad have said it’s a series really best encountered in order. It is a good book, and Duluth is a superb character, just allow for the plot itself to be a touch slight. If I awarded half stars it’s be a three-and-a-halfer, but I don’t and it’s not a four-star book…so, well, only one option remained, really!

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  4. Also looking forward to your next book review, as I am a bit of an Austen fan and I have read a couple of series which try to merge Austen and crime fiction. Never read the one you’re about to read so I look forward to it with interest. I assume it must have some sort of locked room or impossible crime element or have you been hiding your passion for all thing Austen all this time?

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    • To my understanding, this has nothing to do with Austen’s Pemberley. Maybe it does, but it’s also some sort of impossible crime — which, as you astutely deduce, is my reason for picking it up. Should there be an Austen connection, I’ll let you know…

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        • Kate – I’m afraid “Darkness at Pemberley” is set many generations/ decades after Elizabeth and Darcy… While some of the characters share the same name, they certainly don’t share the same traits.

          JJ – looking forward to your review, as I’ve some strong feelings about this title. 😀

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          • Strong good feelings, or strong bad ones? It’s a complete blank to me, I’ve not read anything at all about it — including a plot synopsis, incidentally — so I have no idea what I’m getting into here.

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        • I think strongly mixed feelings. 😛 Though I suppose I should wait for the review before saying anymore! Would be very interested to see what you make of it. 🙂

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  5. JJ, I’m so glad you like Peter Duluth, even if you have reservations about the plot. I have a feeling that once you have read all nine, you might think of amending that criticism about the romantic part of the story. Without wanting to spoil things, I think the feelings you have about it all seeming to spring up without a good foundation were meant to happen. I’ll say no more.

    Kate, if you’re reading this, you really need to read these in order because of the life story of Peter and Iris the develops throughout.

    In New York, I bought what I could: a paperback of Book Three: Puzzle for Puppets and a first edition (whoopee!) of Book Four, Puzzle for Wantons. I think that, rather than seek out all the others so that I can re-read in order, I’ll just plunge into Book Three and review it. I’ve never read Book Seven: Run to Death – never even heard of it! So I have some searching to do as well!

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