It was just over ninety-five years ago, December 1927, that The Royal Magazine published a short story by Agatha Christie called “The Tuesday Night Club.” It marked the first appearance of one of Christie’s most long-lasting sleuths, the shrewd village spinster, Jane Marple.
But the story marked another kind of first (as far as I can determine) and that is what I want to discuss. In the tale a group of friends gather and one of them tells a yarn of murder, encouraging the others to solve the crime. After all the clever, erudite people admit to being stumped Miss Marple reveals the solution.
This story is an example of what we might call the Least Likely Detective motif, but it is certainly not the first of those. They go back at least to G.K. Chesterton’s invention of Father Brown in 1910.
No, I am referring to what we might call the Armchair Detective Club, where one member of a group tells a tale and the others are invited to solve it. Christie wrote a whole book of these tales, published as The Thirteen Problems, and in the U.S. as The Tuesday Club Murders.
The next example I could find that seems to fit the category is a novel by E. and M.A. Radford called Death and the Professor (1961). I haven’t read it but it involves regular meetings of the Dilettantes Club, where a member called the Professor solves the enigmas.
A few years later Ellery Queen (the author) invented the Puzzle Club, whose members devised fictional criminal tales to be solved by Ellery Queen (the character). Josh Pachter recently added five more stories to this series and The Adventures of the Puzzle Club was published as a book by Crippen and Landru last year.
In 1972 Isaac Asimov wrote “The Acquisitive Chuckle,” introducing the Black Widowers, an organization inspired by the Trap Door Spiders, a club he belonged to. In this story a guest at the club’s monthly dinner posed a mystery which could only be solved by the waiter, Henry.
The tale featured a nice surprise but not as big a shock as Asimov received when the story appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and editor Frederick Dannay announced it was the first in a series. That was news to its author.
But the ever-prolific Asimov was up to the challenge. He wrote more than sixty tales of the Black Widowers, filling five books. (And by the way, he acknowledged Christie’s Tuesday Club as his inspiration.) In each tale the shrewd and sophisticated club members pose countless theories on the crime, only to be upstaged by modest Henry, a classic Least Likely Detective.
The fun of dine-and-detect stories, of course, is that they are fair play tales (you know everything the detective does!), with the extra benefit of continuing characters interacting.
I contributed my own piece to the subgenre with a story about a group of “underemployed private eyes” who met in a bar to armchair-investigate the torching of a dollhouse. “A Small Case of Arson” appeared in P.I. Magazine in 1991. Alas, as occurred so often in what I laughingly call my writing career, I couldn’t think of a second adventure for the gumshoes.
But a few years ago I was pondering this subgenre and the writer chunk of my brain suddenly kicked in with a question: Why not reverse it?
These stories are always based on good guys trying to figure out how a crime was committed, or by whom. What if the club members were all criminals and the storyteller challenged them to figure out how he had pulled off his latest caper?
That sounded like fun. The result is “The Accessories Club,” appearing in the March/April issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. And unlike the fate of my sad, orphaned private eye characters, I have already written a sequel for this sneaky crowd to lurk in. I don’t know whether it will see the light of publication, but you can read the first tale now and see what you think.
2 responses to ““Feasting With Felonies” by Robert Lopresti”
Congratulations on getting into Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. I’m looking forward to reading your story.
Oh, that sounds fun! I’ve always liked “Club Stories,” mystery or no! Asimov did another one with a smaller cast as “The Union Club” mysteries.