PATRICK QUENTIN – Puzzle for Players.   Pocket #164, paperback reprint; 1st printing, June 1942. Hardcover edition: Simon & Schuster, October 1938. Victor Gollancz, UK, hc, 1939. US hardcover reprint: Books Inc., 1944. Paperback reprints include: Cherry Tree #301, UK,1940; Handi-Book #53, 1946 [abridged]; Avon, 1979; International Polygonics Ltd., 1989.

PATRICK QUENTIN Puzzle for Players

   This is the second of author Patrick Quentin’s Peter Duluth mysteries, the first being Puzzle for Fools, reviewed here (by Marv Lachman) and in the post just preceding this one. There were nine books in the series in all, written between the years 1936 and 1954.

   The titles of the first six of which began with the word “Puzzle,” indicating the author’s interest in clues, alibis and the other standard equipment of the mystery novel as a work of Golden Age detection, but as time went on, the later books began to depend more and more on matters psychological, and as Wikipedia says, became “increasingly dark and brooding [with] deceit and betrayal, particularly adultery” as primary themes.

   The history of who “Patrick Quentin” was (and when) is a complicated one, and I’ll let the Wikipedia link suffice. For the book at hand, Puzzle for Players, as well as Fools, the authors were Hugh Wheeler and Richard Webb, the latter dropping out of the collaboration in the early 1950s.

PATRICK QUENTIN Puzzle for Players

   Wheeler may be even better known as a playwright and librettist, rather than a mystery writer, and in fact in 1979 he wrote the book for the musical Sweeney Todd. This fact makes the author of the play that Duluth is putting on in Players rather remarkable, a chap by the name of Henry Prince. Harold Prince, of course, was the Broadway director of Sweeney Todd when it first opened. (The latter would have been 10 years old when Wheeler’s book was written, so the connection is either purely coincidental or pure prescience.)

   Having been released from the sanitarium he was in while the events in Puzzle for Fools took place, along with his wife-to-be, Iris Pattison, Peter Duluth’s hopes for a full recovery depend on how successful this new play is going to be. What Duluth, a recovering alcoholic, does not expect, is that the all-but-abandoned theater where it will be opening may be jinxed, if not with real ghosts, then with figurative ghosts from the past.

   Everyone in the cast seems to have their own demons of one sort or another: lost loves, thwarted loves, all-but-fatal accidents to recover from, new love affairs, and so on.

PATRICK QUENTIN Puzzle for Players

   This is perhaps the most intense, and authentic, detective novel taking place in the world of the Theatre I can remember reading. Actors and actresses are good at leading the lies of other lives, so the theater and the detective fiction are well connected, but I cannot at the moment provide with a better example.

   But as for Peter Duluth himself, he does a lot of thinking, but he really does no detective work himself. That chore is left to his (and Iris’s) psychiatrist, Dr. Lenz, and Inspector Clarke (who also may have appeared in the first book) who do the heavy work.

   The final scene, in which the play is going on for the first time, in spite of a substitution for the leading man at the very last minute, while Lenz is attempting to go through the facts behind the killings and who the killer is — whew — really a high-powered juggling act on the part of the author, as well as the ultimate in a mind boggling mystery on the part of the reader.

   Highly recommended.

PostScript. Throughout the book, I wondered who I’d cast as Peter and Iris if the book were to be turned into a film.

   In the comments following Marv Lachman’s review of Fools, David Vineyard provided the following information:

    “The Duluths made it to the screen in The Black Widow as Van Heflin and Gene Tierney [as Peter and Iris Denver]; in The Female Fiends (Strange Awakening) based on Puzzle for Fiends as Lex Barker and Monica Grey (called Peter and Iris Chance); and in Homicide for Three based on Puzzle for Puppets played by Warren Douglas and Audrey Long.”

   In reverse order, then: Warren Douglas and Audrey Long — I can’t recall their faces well enough to say yea or nay. Lex Barker and Monica Grey — definitely not the former and I’m rather vague on the latter. Van Heflin and Gene Tierney — any movie with Gene Tierney in it is more than OK.

PATRICK QUENTIN Puzzle for Players

   But while I was reading the book, I was pulled toward Ray Milland as Peter in one sense — the recovering alcoholic concept made him come to mind right away — but no, for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on, he’s not quite right.

   For other reasons I also can’t explain and don’t laugh, I somehow had Robert Sterling and Anne Jeffreys in mind. (You probably know them best later on as the two lead stars in the comedy TV series Topper.)

   Not that there’s anything remotely comedic about Puzzle for Players, and who knows how one’s unconscious mind works, but there you are.