by Marvin Lachman

PATRICK QUENTIN – A Puzzle for Fools.

Simon & Schuster, US, hardcover, 1936. Victor Gollancz, UK, hc, 1936. Paperback reprints include: Pocket #83, 1940, with several later printings; Dell D192, Great Mystery Library #4, 1957; Ballantine F461, 1963; Avon PN238, 1969, with at least one later printing. Trade paperback: Penguin Classic Crime, 1986.

PATRICK QUENTIN A Puzzle for Fools

   During the nineteen-thirties many movie comedies had the hero and heroine meet “cute.” Example: Claudette Colbert and Gary Cooper meeting in a haberdashery; he only wants pajama bottoms, and she only wants pajama tops. They agree to buy a single pair.

   Patrick Quentin’s A Puzzle for Fools is in that tradition, as Peter Duluth, an alcoholic theatrical producer, and Iris Pattison, a young woman suffering from melancholia, met at an exclusive mental sanatorium. This book has seldom been out of print since it was first published more than fifty years ago.

   The Duluth books were to get better as time went on. This book, the first which Hugh C. Wheeler and Richard Wilson Webb wrote as Patrick Quentin, is lively and readable but shows some of the earmarks of inexperience (Wheeler was only twenty-four at the time) and hasty writing; the team was very prolific in the years before World War II.

   Duluth’s fears as he goes through alcohol withdrawal while trying to solve a murder are not well conveyed. Instead, we have him saying things like, “Those were some of the most harrowing moments of my life,” but the authors do not make the readers feel it.

   Too often the authors rely on Had-I-But-Known writing to get across that there are sinister events to come. For example: “Of course, I had no idea then of the fantastic and horrible things which were soon to happen in Doctor Lenz’s sanatorium. I had no means of telling just how significant these minor and seemingly pointless disturbances were.”

PATRICK QUENTIN A Puzzle for Fools

   And, later, “Maybe I could have prevented a lot of tragedy if I had gone to the authorities there and then.” (Quentin comes close to setting a world’s record for the amount of information withheld from the police in this book.)

   The pace is very quick, and Duluth’s light, self-deprecating tone makes him an enjoyable narrator. Don’t expect the kind of sophistication to be found in the British puzzles of the nineteen-thirties, though Wheeler and Webb were born in England.

   No American writer has quite achieved what is to be found in Allingham, Innes, Blake, Sayers, et al. There must be an invisible barrier on the western shore of the Atlantic.

   Incidentally, if the name Hugh Wheeler sounds familiar, it should. After he stopped writing mysteries in 1965 he became a major playwright, best known for his collaborations with Stephen Sondheim on such works as A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, and Sweeney Todd.

– From The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 9, No. 2, March/April 1987.

Editorial Comment:   This is the second of two mysteries taking place in psychiatric institutions that Marv referred to in his recent review of A Mind to Murder, by P. D. James. Although the book was in print in 1987, it no longer seems to be, some 22 years later.

Coming Soon:   Another review of this book by Newell Dunlap and Marcia Muller, taken from 1001 Midnights; then my review of Puzzle for Players, the second book in the series.

   Also relevant: Kevin Killian’s review of The Crippled Muse (1951), by Hugh Wheeler; and two of my previously posted reviews. First, Death My Darling Daughters, by Jonathan Stagge; then Return to the Scene, by Q. Patrick.