The Murder Dossiers

As a crime-writing combination, J.G. Links and Dennis Wheatley were almost as unlikely as Gordon Williams (writer of the book on which ‘Straw Dogs’ was based) and footballer and manager Terry Venables, who wrote the Hazell private eye novels under the name of P.B.Yuill. Links (1904-1997) never wrote a crime novel and is best known for ‘Venice for Pleasure’, a highly successful tourist guide, far removed in style from ‘The Rough Guide’ and ‘Lonely Planet’, which remains much admired to this day. Wheatley (1897-1977) was, in contrast, a prolific novelist. He enjoyed massive sales, but then fell out of favour, although there are now signs of a revival of interest in his work. Wheatley produced historical novels and science fiction, as well as dozens of thrillers, but his reputation nowadays rests mainly on his books about the occult, such as ‘The Devil Rides Out’.

Nevertheless, this literary odd couple was responsible for an intriguing experiment in crime fiction which has been imitated and developed but not as yet surpassed. They came up with the idea of creating a ‘dossier’ concerning a murder mystery which offered in a cardboard folder all the evidence and relevant clues – accompanied by, naturally, numerous red herrings – to enable the reader to find the solution to the puzzle. The correct answer was contained in a sealed section at the back of the folder. The physical clues took diverse forms; ‘poison pills’, cigarette ends, used matchsticks and curls of hair along with facsimile police reports, cablegrams and so on.

The first dossier, ‘Murder off Miami’, appeared in July 1936. The folder bore the legend: ‘Dennis Wheatley presents a new era in crime fiction – a murder mystery planned by J.G. Links.’ The precise extent of the respective contributions to the story of Wheatley and Links is, as with so many collaborative efforts, not entirely clear, but it seems that Wheatley focused on the narrative of the story (such as it was) and Links on the plot-line.

The novelty value of the project was high. The ‘Baffle Books’ of Lassiter Wren and Randall McKay had enjoyed popularity previously, and the eccentric innovator Harry Stephen Keeler had moved towards the ‘crime novel as dossier’ with ‘The Marceau Case’ and ‘X Jones – of Scotland Yard’ shortly before the appearance of ‘Murder off Miami’. But Wheatley and Links took the dossier concept further and were rewarded with massive success. Wheatley later claimed that 120,000 copies were sold within six months and this impressive figure is probably no exaggeration. In the USA, the dossier was renamed ‘File on Bolitho Blane’ and the publishers followed up what they called this ‘crime file’ with a similar effort produced by Helen Reilly and two more from the pseudonymous Patrick Quentin. Reilly and Quentin were talented crime writers, but they were unable to improve significantly on the original concept.

Wheatley and Links produced three more dossiers: ‘Who Killed Robert Prentice?’, ‘The Malinsay Massacre’ and ‘Herewith the Clues.’ ‘Who Killed Robert Prentice?’ was, artistically, the best of the four, boasting a complex and satisfactory plot, though unlike the other entries in the series, it failed to achieve publication in Nazi Germany; breathtaking, this is said to have been due to disapproval of the lax morals of one of the female characters. But the collaboration soon ran out of steam and sales slumped. Wheatley disapproved of Links’ choice of photographs in ‘The Malinsay Massacre’ and Links did most of the work on the rather disappointing ‘Herewith the Clues’ after Wheatley succumbed to illness. The last dossier appeared in July 1939, a mere three years after the series began.

The dossiers have twice been republished within the past thirty years, although the second reprint eliminated the physical clues and thus much of the point of the exercise. Critical reaction to the dossiers was mixed from the outset. Milward Kennedy, a reviewer who wrote Golden Age detective novels called them ‘a good game’ (a judgment which is not far off the mark). Barzun and Taylor acknowledged the attempt to achieve realism, but noted that otherwise the mystery plot of ‘Murder off Miami’ was not itself particularly original. Julian Symons, in his classic study ‘Bloody Murder’ was characteristically dismissive, pointing out that the dossiers served to illustrate the limitations of the mystery story that focuses exclusively on the solving of a puzzle. By far the most thoughtful assessment of the project comes from an unexpected quarter: a fascinating article written by Reg Gadney for ‘The London Magazine’ in 1969, before he achieved fame as a novelist. I am indebted to Bob Rothwell, creator of a remarkably comprehensive website about Wheatley’s work, for directing me to ‘The Murder Dossiers of Dennis Wheatley and J.G. Links’, in which Gadney speculates intelligently on the possible implications for the genre of the dossier approach to mystery writing, as well as for pointing out that Wheatley was also responsible for a murder mystery board game, ‘Alibi’, which appeared in 1953 but made little impression and that in the 1980s Simon Goodenough was responsible for several dossiers in the Wheatley-Links style based upon Sherlock Holmes stories.

Gadney quotes Howard Spring as saying that ‘It is not for me to criticize Murder Off Miami any more than it would be for an art critic to criticize the artist’s haystack’ and observes: ‘Spring was no doubt unaware that Duchamp had already exhibited a urinal and that the barriers between artefacts and reality were starting to collapse.’

Assessing the short-lived nature of the dossier experiment, Gadney comments: ‘It may well be that the form of the dossiers is unsuitable to other forms of fiction and that, where mysteries surround the romance or tragedy, they are best explained by professional critics and literati. It has always seemed strange to me that the general reader (whomsoever he may be) is not really invited to speculate about such problems. Wheatley and Links invited him to do so, and provided the solution as well. As I have suggested, they are forerunners of a particular blending of fact and fiction, or fact and fantasy. But they are, nevertheless, different from the historical novel or the ‘reversed’ approaches of recent work by Mailer and Capote. However, the dossiers are very much objects in their own right and, as such, are distinctly related to Dada and certain sorts of Concrete poetry. We can perhaps decide that the best description is ‘Literary Collage’ in so far as they wove actual clue with fiction plot.

If any future alterations are to be made to the physical aspects of the book, then the dossiers suggest some of them. Reading habits, rather than the habit of reading, might change for a start….’

Gadney can be forgiven for failing to foresee the manifold possibilities opened up by the internet; to take just one example, the Cluedo game has recently been publicised worldwide by an interactive mystery competition which, just possibly, might be seen a distant descendant of the Wheatley-Links approach.

On the whole, Milward Kennedy’s judgment seems right. The dossiers have more in common with games than with the conventional novel. But they reflect the view of John Dickson Carr that detective fiction is ‘the grandest game in the world.’