In the best serial novels, like the 1932 classic The Floating Admiral, individual contributors play off one another, but here, in this spoof of an interwar-period English manor-house mystery, a diverse group of American and British authors mostly disregard preceding developments and redo them in as absurd a way as possible. Simon Brett, president of the U.K.'s Detection Club under whose aegis The Floating Admiral was written, gets things off to a grand start by introducing a slew of briefly and vividly sketched characters and the somewhat dilapidated Castle Crawsbey. A proper butler, an American admiral, a Russian countess, a South American adventuress and other eccentric types offer ample opportunity for farce. Jan Burke, Dorothy Cannell, Margaret Coel, Deborah Crombie, Eileen Dreyer, Carolyn Hart, Francine Mathews, Sharan Newman, Alexandra Ripley, Walter Satterthwait, Sarah Smith and Carolyn Wheat each add mayhem and slapstick as they cheerfully flout convention, fair play and common sense. Edward Marston does a heroic job of trying to create a suitable ending from the rubble of identities and plot fragments. Sometimes amusing, but too often merely silly, the book ultimately sinks and the crew goes down with the ship.
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The Sunken Sailor features all the ingredients for a proper 1930s murder mystery, including one weekend party at a decaying castle, a few servings of oddballs from Europe and beyond, plenty of titled aristocrats, and, the piece de resistance, a butler. The recipe is complete when one of the guests, an admiral, ends up dead at the bottom of the pool ("What shall we do with the sunken sailor?"). The weekend begins with billiards and brandy, but murder is next on the agenda, and soon the castle has become a crime scene, with all the guests as suspects. The 14 writers here--such as Simon Brett, Eileen Dreyer, and Sarah Smith--know the period well, and, though cliched throughout, the writing never stoops to buffoonery, even as disguises and mistaken identities abound. A funny little whodunit. Mary Frances Wilkens
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