A Puzzle for Fools (1936) by Patrick Quentin

A Puzzle for Fools by Patrick Quentin 1936

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

“There seems no motive, but then you don’t need motives in a place like this.”

Broadway producer Peter Duluth fell into a bottle after the death of his wife. It’s a long climb back out, and his recovery is not helped by the sinister whispers he hears at night—his own voice, warning of murder. He discovers that many of his fellow patients at the Lenz Sanitarium are similarly troubled. Have they simply lost their minds, or is someone trying to drive them insane? When a suspicious death does take place, Peter is the only one who can solve the mystery, even at the risk of his own sanity.

A Puzzle for Fools is a remarkably self-assured debut for both Peter Duluth and Patrick Quentin. This is the only the second official collaboration of Richard Webb and Hugh Wheeler, and the first published under their most famous pseudonym. It establishes a surprisingly dark origin story for a series that, while often cynical, is essentially lighthearted. Although Peter is officially hospitalized for alcoholism, it becomes clear that he is also suffering from something like PTSD after witnessing his wife’s tragic death. He often refers to having “the jitters,” and experiences severe panic attacks.

A Puzzle for Fools by Patrick Quentin 1936This is not a downbeat book, however. Peter’s flippant attitude keeps the wisecracks coming and his narrative focuses more on the eccentricities of his fellow patients than on their suffering. A disgraced financier hears an imaginary stock ticker, for instance, and another patient believes he’s a drugstore clerk, happily serving phantom banana splits all day. Narcoleptic Englishman Geddes boasts “a mustache which you felt must be a whole-time job.” Iris Pattison has been in a catatonic depression since her father’s suicide, but Peter thinks she has star quality. Most of these characters are exactly as deep as they need to be, though there is one important figure who needed more development in order to be convincing.

The setting in “the polite equivalent of a bughouse” is inspired, because so many of the social cues that would normally be used to detect guilt are not present. A suspect seems anxious or unhappy? Well, of course, that’s why they’re in a sanitarium. Suspicious behaviors might be compulsions driven by mental illness rather than evidence of murder. Interrogating these patients also proves challenging. There are many moments when Peter has to decide how far to press a suspect, knowing that if he’s wrong, it could seriously harm their mental health.

A Puzzle for Fools by Patrick Quentin 1936As one of the less disturbed patients, Peter enjoys privileged relations with the medical staff. “It’s kind of nice to have a drunk to look after once in a while; someone who isn’t out-and-out cuckoo,” an orderly shares. “They’re more human, if you see what I mean.” At times, staff members seem almost too candid. As Peter observes wearily, “I had gotten used to being treated like a prison trusty. Apparently there’s no one who inspires more gratuitous confidence than an alcoholic in a mental home.” There are moments, however, when his true status becomes chillingly clear. Those same staff members who chat with him so affably have complete freedom to confine him, drug him, or even declare him insane if he comes too near an uncomfortable truth.

Peter’s plan to trap the killer hinges on using the neuroses of the other patients, a clever ploy that nonetheless pricks at his conscience.

As the look of alarm in her eyes grew more intense, I felt thoroughly ashamed of myself. It was a vile thing to exploit the frailties of this poor bewildered creature, to capitalize on the weakness of my fellow patients. But the murderer had done so, and had forced me to imitate him. That was another score I had against him.

A satisfyingly theatrical conclusion confirms that Peter Duluth is the real thing, an instantly compelling protagonist who knows just when a touch of drama is called for. The mystery almost doesn’t matter, as it’s so much fun to see the sanitarium and its inhabitants through his eyes.

Second Opinion

The Invisible Event

The plot promises a puzzle up front and perhaps there’s an element of self-reproach in that title, because it’s not the most complex puzzle you’ll ever encounter.  It’s good — cleanly motivated, fair play in all but a few minor aspects, and developed at an intriguing pace — but you’ll doubtless spot the guilty party in spite of a solid attempt to steer you off-track, and this doubtless comes as a result of keeping everything in such a closed setting.  There’s also an element of Roger Sheringhamming (it’s a verb, look it up) in Duluth’s final summing up which is absolutely perfect, and reveals Quentin to have a very clear idea of how they see this series working (wow, that is astonishingly general; I’m just being careful to preserve this for you).

 Availability

 A Puzzle for Fools is available in paperback and hardcover from American Mystery Classics and in ebook format from Mysterious Press.

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10 thoughts on “A Puzzle for Fools (1936) by Patrick Quentin

  1. Thanks for the review. I haven’t managed to track this one down, and I’ve been torn about whether I should do so before reading Puzzle for Players, which I already have. Now you have me seeking out that green cover – what a gorgeous illustration! Overall this one sounds like it matches my experience with Patrick Quentin so far – kinnnnnnnnd of good, but not quite reaching the heights that you yearn for.

    I just finished a Quentin novel (or should I say “Patrick” novel) that was really solid. Review in a few days.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Given the way certain relationships ended up in this book, I’m now especially curious to read the rest of the series in light of this beginning. I’ve read a few of Patrick Quentin’s standalones and enjoyed them, but LOVED Q. Patrick’s Trant novel Death and the Maiden–thanks so much for alerting me to your review!

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  2. Glad you enjoyed this, and you’ve reminded me that I always intended to return to Quentin…but just never have (largely on account of how difficult they can be to find). I actually have the next couple, so I should dig out book 2 and see how things develop — enough people who know praise Quentin very highly, so they surely warrant further investigation. Watch this space..

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    1. It’s definitely bold to introduce your series character as a mentally ill alcoholic and stage a meet-cute in a sanitarium. It does make one wonder where things go in the next books.

      Quentin is not always the easiest author to find, for sure. We’re very lucky in the United States that Mysterious Press reissued a number of Quentin/Patrick/Stagge titles as ebooks last year. It’s too bad they aren’t available in all countries.

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      1. Yeah, I can think of few debut characters who asked for so little sympathy and yet evoked so much — it’s a fine balancing act, and Patrick deserve credit for making it work so well.

        Mysterious Press have done a wonderful job in bringing back a bunch of stuff…but since most of it is only available in the US now those of us in other territories will have to wait for someone else to take a punt on this genre or, less excitingly, for the copyrights to run out and all manner of cheap reprints to surface.

        However, I do have book 2, so I shall get to it in due course. Maybe July-ish.

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      2. I’m pretty tempted to dive straight into A Puzzle for Players, especially given the theatrical setting. Looking forward to your thoughts on it in the future.

        Hopefully the US reissues have been successful enough that another publisher will pick them up in other regions. It’s especially frustrating with ebooks, as with physical books there’s at least the option of international purchases.

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    1. This series might be worth a shot, as the tone here reminds me a bit of Delano Ames. Peter is a witty observer of human foibles without ever acting superior (and even joins right in the chaos at times). I can also see J. J.’s Roger Sheringham comparison as well.

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  3. I was a wee bit disappointed by this one. It wasn’t as vivid as most of the QPQ books I have read, and the mystery is a bit flat. Pleasant, but if I didn’t already have five or so excellent QPQ books under my belt I doubt it would tempt me back.

    I don’t agree about dark btw. I see it largely as a comedy, a bit Kaufman & Hart. (I could imagine a Bob Hope movie of this, along the lines of The Cat and the Canary.)

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    1. Good to hear the series only gets better from here! Despite my good intentions, I haven’t read any more QP/PQ yet, so thanks for the reminder of how good they are!

      This book is very funny and usually light in tone despite some chilling moments. Your comparisons are good ones, But it surprised me that Peter and Iris meet under such circumstances, and I’m especially impressed that it’s clear the two are really suffering from serious emotional problems. Hard-drinking protagonists are certainly common in books from this era, but their drinking is usually portrayed as comic or macho. It’s rare to see a main character admit that his drinking is a problem and seek help for it, and especially to acknowledge that he is using alcohol to self-medicate for depression.

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