Patrick Quentin Essay - Critical Essays

Hugh Wheeler, Richard Webb


The first five Q. Patrick novels, written by Richard Webb either alone or with Martha Mott Kelley or Mary Louise Aswell, are typical Golden Age mysteries of the 1930’s, with intricate plots and fair-play clueing. Nevertheless, some of the Q. Patrick books—most notably, the first Webb-Wheeler collaboration, Death Goes to School—feature a gimmick that had been rarely used by earlier writers. Not only do the books unmask the least likely suspect, but also they frequently are constructed around trying to identify the least likely detective. In the usual detective novel, the reader knows quite early which character is the detective, whether amateur or professional. In a Q. Patrick story of this period, and in some of the early Patrick Quentin and Jonathan Stagge tales as well, the sleuth can turn out to be almost anybody. At times, the reader is fooled when the person who seems to be investigating the crime is identified at the end of the story as the guilty person; occasionally, the chief suspect turns out to be the detective. Indeed, because Webb and his coauthors so frequently hid the genuine roles of their characters, readers familiar with these works almost automatically distrust anyone who seems to be a detective or is helping the narrator unravel the mystery.

A Puzzle for Fools

With the publication of A Puzzle for Fools in 1936 under the new pseudonym of Patrick Quentin, Webb and Wheeler began their most important and popular series of detective novels. Eventually, the series protagonist, theatrical producer Peter Duluth, would be featured in nine novels and one short story, and two of the novels would be adapted as feature-length films. The first Duluth book is notable for its imaginative setting, an asylum for wealthy patients suffering from relatively minor mental disorders. When murder occurs, however, it seems obvious that one of the patients has a problem that is not so minor. Peter Duluth, who has lost his wife in a fire, is in the sanatorium recovering from alcoholism. Questions of what is real and what is imagined, of who is sane and who is mad, make this novel a memorable opening for the Duluth series.

For both A Puzzle for Fools and its notable successor, Puzzle for Players, published two years later, Quentin borrowed a technique from the hard-boiled private-eye writers: The story is told in breezy, colloquial prose by the narrator-detective, and the events are sordid. Unlike such detectives as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, however, Duluth cannot remain a detached investigator. In almost all the Duluth novels, Peter has to stay one step ahead of the police to save himself or someone he loves. Clear examples of Quentin’s approach to the mystery novel can be found in Puzzle for Players.

Puzzle for Players

Puzzle for Players is a carefully constructed murder mystery aimed at fooling both neophyte mystery fans and jaded readers who believe that they can always identify the murderer. Quentin provides clues (involving brothers and plastic surgery) that allow expert mystery fans to identify, wrongly, an unlikely suspect as the killer. The real murderer is an even less likely suspect. Duluth, who narrates the story, looks on the murders not as crimes to be solved but as threats to his happiness. After the events in A Puzzle for Fools, Duluth has begun to revive his career by producing a new play, Troubled Waters. He is in love with Iris Pattison, one of the characters in the earlier book, who is beginning her career as an actress in Duluth’s play. His psychoanalyst, Dr. Lenz, has forbidden him to wed her until he has proved for six months that he has regained his emotional stability. Thus, when a series of strange events occur at the Dagonet Theater, they threaten Duluth’s comeback as well as his marriage plans.

The Dagonet is a decrepit, rat-filled theater, watched over by an ancient caretaker whose wife hanged herself in a dressing room there almost forty years earlier. One of the actors in Duluth’s play claims to see a ghost, and another actor dies of a heart attack after announcing that the...

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