Mysterious Press/Open Road, 2018
originally published 1938
Moving on to book #17 on the Séptimo Círculo list, I actually thought I would die of old age before getting through this one. It is the rare book that tries my patience, but that's exactly what happened here. The saving grace for me was that not only did I never guess the who, but when all was made known, it was someone I never would have suspected in a million years.
Puzzle for Players is book number two in Quentin's series featuring Peter Duluth, but it is the first time I've read anything by this author. The story begins as Duluth is hoping to make a bit of a comeback after having been "tabbed" as the "youngest has-been producer on record." Re-entering the theatrical arena after having been "tentatively cured" of a daily "two quarts of rye" drinking problem during his time in a sanitarium, Duluth is now ready for his "big come-back," after having read the script of a new play called Troubled Waters. A lot rides on Duluth's success, including regaining his "solvency" and "lost self-respect," and the fact that the play is to make its appearance in a theater with a reputation of being "jinxed" means nothing to him. It does, however, seem to make some of the cast of Troubled Waters nervous -- as part of its creepy past, for example, in 1902 a young woman had been discovered "hanging dead" in an actor's wardrobe, very likely a suicide. But Duluth, while sympathetic, is convinced that this play will restore his reputation, and he's got a fine cast to help make that happen.
It isn't long until the first of the weird incidents begin, but really, these are the least of Peter's problems. First, some pretty shady people arrive on the scene, each with an agenda and all adding to Peter's woes. Events begin taking their toll on the cast and especially on Peter himself, but above all, the show must go on. However, after two strange deaths, he's not so sure that will be possible.
I have to say that I was quite taken with the haunted theater idea, and while the author it ran with it for a while, creepy atmosphere and all, it just sort of fizzled. A shame, really, because to me, there was much more he could have done with it and didn't. The focus is very much the characters in this novel, many of whom are harboring secrets and some of whom are actively doing what they can to cause chaos while the cast is gearing up for opening night. And while all of the mayhem is certainly engaging, the story tends to be weighed down by the psychological aspects brought in by Peter's doctor, various romance moments, and the sheer volume of red herrings that are added to the story so that by the time the end came, I was ready to be done. Personally, I think that some careful editing might have given this story more teeth, which is what it needed, in my humble mystery-reader opinion.
I will be encountering another Peter Duluth mystery shortly, A Puzzle for Fools from 1936, so I'm sort of wary at the moment. I know there are any number of readers who enjoyed Puzzle for Players, but I can't really count myself among them. I will say that the final revelation was completely unexpected, which is what saved this novel for me, but the reality is that a good solution does not necessarily a good mystery make.