“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.
This 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.
As 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.
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).