I'm a collector of Golden Age detective fiction - Freeman Wills Crofts, GDH and M Cole et al. Over the weekend, at a second hand bookstall in Vasant Vihar, I came across a book that I had never heard of, called the Floating Admiral. It was written by the Detection Club, a group of detective fiction writers in the UK in the 1920s onwards, whose objjective was to form a fellowship that kept the standards of detective fiction flying high and to help each other over the technicalities. Members included GK chesterton, Dorothy L Sayers, Agatha Christie and other illustrious writers.
The Flosting Admiral is a book they all wrote together as a sort of Chinese whisper. Each author had to write one chapter and pass it on to the next one who would build from where the previous one had left off, decipher the clues and add new ones and so on until the last one whose job it was to clean up the tangled web. Just as a pure intellectual challenge it sounds phenomenal - because each has characters thrust upon them, as it were, and situations to which they don't already know the answers beforehand and they each write in their own detection style, i.e. those that are alibi-hunters get busy with their Bradshaws while those that study the psychology of the victim get busy with that.
Dorothy Sayers, in the introduction, says that real life police tended to scoff at the 'amateur' detective beloved of this genre of fiction because the author always knows what is going to happen, and so the amateur 'tec finds the situation all set up for him; all he has to do is to spike the ball over the net, to use an analogy from my favourite game, volleyball. Therefore the writers took this up as a challenge to figure out what they could do when the situation was not of their own orchestration, and discovered some interesting things. For instance, the fact that the detective in the books always says, "There is only one way this could have happened". They were surprised at the varied explanations each of them could come up with for a situation that they themselves had imagined could only come about in one particular way.
I'm barely a few chapters into it, and I know that characterisation is going to be a victim of this type of group-writing. But as a budding writer, i find myself getting excited about the possibilities of intellectual exploration that something like this throws up, and already know that this is going to be one of the prized books in my 'tec collection, even if I don't like it.