Nothing I think illustrates better the evolution of both « Patrick Quentin » and their most popular character than the opening of the penultimate entry in the Puzzle series, Run to Death:
I saw her hand fist. It settled close to my shoulder on the window frame of the car. It was slender, rather beautiful, unexpectedly white in this country of dark skin and tropical sun. It was a determined hand, too. It clung tenaciously as if the car and I fulfilled some need and were not allowed to slip away.
This might be the beginning of a later Raymond Chandler novel, or an early Ross MacDonald one. The world-weary, laconic narrator is clearly not the same individual that we first met eight years before in Puzzle for Fools. Gone are the biting yet good-humoured wit and overall light-heartedness even in the midst of danger – too many things have happened to this man, especially in the previous two books in the series, for him to remain unchanged. He lost his memory, almost lost his life then his wife. A frequent complaint issued against series in crime fiction is that most of them go stale after a few books: characters stop evolving and writers stop taking risks. The Puzzle books are one of the few exceptions that belie that claim. Not only do the main characters change over time, but the books change too, so to speak, reflecting the evolution of both Quentin’s personal lives and that of the contemporary mystery fiction scene. The whodunit was the genre’s default mode back when the series started and while the writers immediately took some liberties with the rules, the first four entries can be seen as detective novels of a most irregular but still recognizable sort. Nothing in them anticipates the abrupt change in tone and formula that is Puzzle for Fiends. Suddenly the Lockridges make way for Cornell Woolrich, and the suspense element already pervasive in the previous books becomes dominant. Things from then will never be the same, no matter the – tentative – happy ending. The next book, Puzzle for Pilgrims, goes even further in the deconstruction of the series’ concept by having Peter and Iris breaking up and making the titular puzzle secondary to the psychological element, leading us to this Run for Death, tellingly the first book in the series without « Puzzle » in the title. Iris doesn’t appear in the book and Peter is on his own once again, fighting for his life like he did in Fiends.
As I said, the changes in the soon-to-be-cancelled series reflected those in Quentin’s private lives but they were also a sign of the times. WW2, though featuring only peripherically in the series, brought some important and irreversible changes to the mystery genre, with some of those changes being initiated by Quentin themselves. While the post-war rise of suspense – call it domestic or psychological, it is still the same article – is often and with reason credited to female writers, a sizeable part of its forerunners then practicioners were male, and Quentin was very much one of them even before the Puzzle series started. The Hugh Westlake books written as Jonathan Stagge for instance lay the ground for the Puzzle series with their mix of detection and terror. The team’s embrace of suspense has traditionally been ascribed to Hugh Wheeler whose solo work appears to bear out that claim, but recent research suggests Richard Webb may have had a hand in it too, apparently being the sole writer of The Grindle Nightmare, one of Quentin’s darkest books.
Whatever may be, their own evolution and that of the genre meant that they could no longer keep writing the same stuff they used to do and after tinkering with the formula they ended ditching the series itself. Only one Peter & Iris book would appear after Run to Death, or maybe two if we’re counting My Son, The Murderer as being part of the Canon. Post-war Quentin work is mostly standalones with an increasingly stronger psychological edge and bleaker worldview which probably accounts for Julian Symons giving it high marks over their earlier books. Another change can be seen in their short story work, which becomes more and more « crime » and less and less « mystery » culminating with the Edgar-winning The Ordeal of Mrs. Snow collection. And then… and then silence, as Richard Webb gives up on writing and Hugh Wheeler soon follows suit to become a renowned librettist.
While Ellery Queen is and probably will long remain the most famous « duet » in the history of mystery fiction, Patrick Quentin deserves at least second place and arguably was the most adventurous of the two and the one most prone to challenge both norms and themselves. This may explain why they were so popular in countries like France that were skeptical to say the least of the whodunit genre, and remained in print there long before their books had vanished from bookstores in the Anglosphere. Their ongoing comeback is thus good news. Hopefully it will result into a resurgence of critical interest in their work for there is much to mine there, no least being how two British subjects managed to become thoroughly American writers and exert such a decisive if not always recognized influence upon local mystery fiction.