My most recent experience with the writing collective most commonly known as Patrick Quentin was with Death and the Maiden. What felt like breezy fair while I read it ended up packing a major punch in the end, which scores points in my book. Since that time I’ve built up my Quentin collection a bit, mostly in the Peter Duluth series books that the authors seem to be best known for.
I somehow got it into my mind that Puzzle for Players is one of the better regarded Duluth novels, and so I decided to start there. It was somewhat of a questionable choice, as I’ve gotten the sense that the Duluth series has quite a bit of continuity between books, and I haven’t yet read the first entry – Puzzle for Fools. Did I make a mistake? Perhaps – I could quickly tell that at least five characters were potential hold overs from that first novel, which I suppose would rule them out as being killers in the original mystery. Don’t worry – I’m not big at listing character names in my posts anyway, so no risk of spoilers here.
It turns out Peter Duluth isn’t a detective – he’s a washed up director of broadway plays, and in Puzzle for Players, he’s trying to get back on his feet and strike it big again. His new production Troubled Waters has all of the promise of being a hit, but Duluth is thrown a curve ball when the play is relegated to the Dagonet – a decrepit theatre that hasn’t hosted a success in years.
There’s a creepy few opening chapters as the cast arrives at the Dagonet and explores the dark and dusty venue. The theatre exudes a sense of dread, and for good reason. Decades earlier a young woman was found strangled in one of the dressing rooms. Her ghost seems to inhabit the present, as two of the cast members report an apparition coming out of their dressing room mirrors. A knee wobbling search of the theatre turns up no intruders.
The opening had a sense of horror movie like dread, inciting “don’t split up” and “don’t go in that dark room” reactions. The authors somehow turned an off broadway theatre into a setting as drenched in atmosphere as John Dickson Carr’s haunted Chatterham Prison of Hag’s Nook. Unfortunately that atmosphere evaporates as we move past the first few chapters. There are some nice theories thrown around about what could have caused the haunts that were experienced, but the story shifts to focus on more routine matters.
Some shady characters show up, with obvious schemes and ties to the various cast members. Everything starts to feel a bit predictable. Any reader will detect that person X is really blackmailing person Y, or character A secretly knows something from the past of character B. Thankfully there are some red herrings in there, and Patrick Quentin rarely allows things to play out exactly the way that they so painfully obviously seem destined to be. There was one inevitable twist that would have had me throwing the book down in disgust that mercifully never came to be.
The red herrings kind of drag the story out though. This is long for a vintage Pocket Book edition – 300 pages – and it would have been better served at 220. There are a few major threads of distraction that could be neatly trimmed without disturbing the core mystery.
As to the core mystery: it occurs a bit far into the story for me to really go into detail, but suffice to say, someone winds up dead in the theatre. The most interesting part for me was that I wasn’t really sure who was going to get killed. In hindsight perhaps it was a bit obvious, but it did add a bit of anticipation to the story.
As for investigation, this kind of a weird one. The story is told in first person from the point of view of Peter Duluth (all of the Patrick Quentin novels that I’ve read so far have been first person), and he has all sorts of theories about the various threads of mystery that occur. And yet, he doesn’t quite investigate. He’s too busy trying to keep his cast prepping for opening night and avoiding police interference that threatens to shut the whole production down.
If this is at all indicative of the series then it strikes me as a bit funny how these are known as “Peter Duluth mysteries”. That would be like calling John Dickson Carr’s Bencolin books “Jeff Marle mysteries” merely because the same point of view character appears in them.
While this isn’t your standard detective novel, a satisfying ending materializes out of nowhere nonetheless. It isn’t so much that the conclusion to the mystery is fantastic – it’s fine – but rather that the story itself comes together perfectly in the end. I’ll admit that I even got a bit misty eyed, although I blame that on a heavy dose of Dayquil as there is no Cristianna Brand-esque sucker punch emotional twist here. Instead it’s just a feeling of… well, you have to read it. It was a scene involving a clock (no spoiler) that did it for me.
Overall I’m not sure how I feel about Puzzle for Players. Patrick Quentin can write a good story (although the first person narrative style always feels a bit shallow to me) and there are some atmospheric gems at the beginning and a well put together conclusion. The rest felt a bit like filler, as engaging as it was at times. There was a lot of potential in the whole “haunted theatre” and “crime of the past” angle that never really played out, and that was a disappointment. Not a book that I would actively recommend, but you could do a lot worse than to read it.
I tracked down a nice 1942 Pocket Book edition after hunting for a while. These are my favorite to read due to the extra thin wartime paper, which has a great feel and provides a solid white background for the print. The back cover features a summary of the story that pretty much gives away each twist and turn with the exception of the last four chapters! Luckily I gave up on reading the book summaries first years ago.