Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Phantom of the Dagonet

I read Puzzle for Players bit by bit with a fellow mystery aficionado, trying to piece the puzzle together before it was unveiled by Patrick Quentin. In retrospect, it might not have been the wisest reading strategy. Throughout this time, I read other mystery novels. As good as my memory is, it’s little wonder that small and seemingly irrelevant plot points got deleted from my memory. As a result, when the solution was revealed, I stared in disbelief, not remembering a single one of the facts that Patrick Quentin referred to. Frankly, I felt cheated, and although glances at previous pages revealed that some clues were there after all, the overall feeling of dissatisfaction remains, as the solution is kind of problematic. There’s an inherent weakness in the murderer’s plot that no amount of red herring can disguise, and one of its main “clues” is basically ignorant of the theatre’s workings.

That’s somewhat surprising, because Puzzle for Players is a very well-done theatre mystery. I just love these: death is hiding in the shadows in the wings, waiting to strike again, while the actors are on stage rehearsing… This particular theatre is the Dagonet, which comes complete with an age-old jinx (shows that play there constantly fail) and a ghost named Lillian, who has a nasty habit of turning up in mirrors. The theatrical atmosphere is nicely done— Quentin captures the general bedlam of backstage before the performance. The petty, pointless rivalries, the progression of the show as the performance is being moulded… It’s really nicely done.

This book brings back Peter Duluth and Iris Pattison, and by the end of the novel they become Peter and Iris Duluth. Peter is an ex-alcoholic who’s been on one murder case before, in A Puzzle for Fools (which was set in the sanatorium of Dr. Lenz). Quentin brings Lenz back for an encore performance as The Great Detective, and I didn’t like him as much. He directly causes someone’s death, but it’s all in the name of Science. And in the final pages, through divine intervention, Lenz suddenly realizes whodunit and why… although I still don’t see how he could’ve possibly seen the truth. And then there’s some strands of plot that are nothing but pointless smoke in your face— and a few of these strands are never explained.

Is my dissatisfaction with the ending too apparent? To say that I hated this book would be an out-and-out lie, but it really failed to capitalize on its potential. Instead of congratulating the author for making a total ass of me, I was left shaking my fist and shouting “You swindler!” Perhaps it had something to do with the reading strategy, but once the initial seed of dissatisfaction with the ending was planted, it wasn’t going anywhere. Plain and simple: I don’t like the ending. Especially after I came up with a genius theory that was never even brought up as a possibility. I only remember the culprit’s identity— the brilliant motive I ascribed to the person was lost in the depths of my mind overnight… But I assure you it was sublime!

The characters are a delightfully quirky bunch, whether it’s Peter Duluth, the reformed alcoholic (or quitter, as I like to think of it) or Mirabelle the leading lady, who has an unreasonable hatred for her co-star. The Dagonet Theatre is big and imposing and it effectively creates some marvellous atmosphere, just like the sanatorium in A Puzzle for Fools.
Overall, in fact, the book was excellent: my grumbling mainly comes from my dissatisfaction with the ending. But let’s be honest—I’m not such a puzzle-plot stickler that I won’t enjoy a good story with a weak conclusion. Do I recommend this book? Yes, I do. It’s a very fun read and very well-written, and it does its theatrical atmosphere nicely.


  1. After the first few posts, I kept forgetting to check-up on that two-man book-club thread and commend the two of you for only reading a chapter a day or so. I probably would've skipped ahead.

    It's a shame that your experience with Patrick Quentin hasn't been as wonderful as mine, and, somehow, I don't remember any fair-play issues at all.

  2. I've never read any Patrick Quentin, but seeing you getting mad at the plot problems reminded me of MURDER BY DEATH (1976), where Lionel Twain similarly lets rip at his party of famous detectives:

    "You've tricked and fooled you readers for years. You've tortured us all with surprise endings that made no sense. You've introduced characters in the last five pages that were never in the book before. You've withheld clues and information that made it impossible for us to guess who did it. But now, the tables are turned..."

  3. Good point, Sextonblake. I might've been unconsciously channeling that speech...

    Yeah, turns out my memory was flawed with the fair-play issues, but there's a hole in the killer's plot so big you can drive the plot through it.

  4. I think you're being a bit harsh on this one Patrick - I re-read it a few months ago and was utterly captivated - sure, some of it is certainly improbable but it is never outrageously unfair. The subplot about the 'ghost' could easily be dispensed with but it is such a theatrical notion that I found it hard not to succumb to its appeal. But I agree completely with you about the how well the atmosphere and characters are caught.

  5. Oh, no doubt about it- I have been harsh, mainly due to my disappointment. If I read it as usual, in a day or two with no other reads interrupting it, I think I'd have liked it more.

    Either way, I think the first ghostly apparition had a stupidly improbable conclusion, and that it made no sense for the killer to eliminate who he/she tried to kill, as someone else is a far more sensible target. It's like "The Seer in the Sands"- the situation (a message sent from a dead man) is intriguing, and the solution is overall good, but there's a huge hole in the plot (Why didn't the woman ask for the "code word" she arranged with the dead man as one of her questions? It made far more sense than asking for help with a crossword puzzle.).