Article published on September 1, 2012.
Self-satisfied and unashamedly self-serving, Lord Comstock was a newspaper tycoon with enemies pretty much everywhere. He had no scruples when it came to the material published in his newspapers and was always on the look-out for the next person or institution to attack [some things never change, eh?]. There was no great surprise therefore that someone would want to do him in but, when Lord Comstock was found dead in the study of his country retreat, his murder proved a particularly complex matter for the authorities.
Having arrived a week earlier than expected at Hursley Lodge and having that very morning given instructions to his secretary that he wasn’t to be disturbed, Lord Comstock’s final few hours were in fact intruded upon by numerous visitors. No less than three VIPs – an Archbishop, the government Chief Whip and the Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard – arrived and angrily demanded to speak to Lord Comstock. Any one of them could have murdered him, although their high social status and the potential for national embarrassment make the investigation a delicate business. Wanting the matter brought to a satisfactory conclusion as quietly as possible, the Home Secretary asks four famous detectives – Mrs Adela Bradley, Sir John Saumarez, Lord Peter Wimsey and Mr Roger Sheringham to investigate the murder, the only stipulation being that none of them can seek aid from the police.
First things first, despite her name being featured prominently on the cover, Agatha Christie did not write any or all of Ask a Policeman. She did however provide an interesting preface to the story that discusses her fellow mystery authors. Ask a Policeman is actually a collaborative effort on the part of several members of the Detection Club and, while a member of the club, the doyenne of detective novels did not join in this with this particular project [she did contribute to the Detection Club’s The Floating Admiral which was republished by HarperCollins last year].
Having established that, it must be said that Ask a Policeman was written in quite an ingenious way. Milward Kennedy came up with the title for the book and then John Rhodes plotted the murder and introduced the suspects. Four potential solutions to the crime were then provided by four other members of the Detection Club with an additional twist in the process being that each of the four had to swap their signature detectives. So Gladys Mitchell walked Sir John Saumarez through the case while Helen Simpson took charge of Mrs Bradley and Dorothy L. Sayers wrote for Roger Sheringham while Anthony Berkeley had Lord Peter Wimsey as his detective.
Despite, or perhaps because of, its unusual premise, Ask a Policeman is neither particularly ingenious nor particularly entertaining. The murder of Lord Comstock was plausible and the suspects provided were fitting, but John Rhodes’ beginning to the book was too drawn out and dry. It’s really quite difficult to make coldblooded murder seem dull. The second section of the book, when the four detectives are let loose to conduct their overlapping investigations, is better. All four authors make good use of their borrowed detectives and recognise their respective clichés without giving in to parody. Picking a favourite detective is hard and perhaps unfair since all but Lord Peter Wimsey seem to have fallen out of reading favour now [although Mrs Bradley repeats are still being shown occasionally on the cable channels]. A final solution to Lord Comstock’s murder is provided in the final section of the book but it’s debatable just how satisfactory it is.
Ultimately, Ask a Policeman is perhaps a book best enjoyed by detective fiction completists. Those who are familiar with the work of all of the participating authors will be best able to appreciate their various interpretations of the crime and also how they handle each other’s most famous detectives. The actual setting and solving of the crime is not amazing and so may be a disappointment to more casual crime readers seeking an entertaining mystery yarn.