November 22, 2007
Gilbert Adair: A Mysterious Affair of Style
Gilbert Adair has been quietly turning out delightfully idiosyncratic, and impressively slim, novels for almost 20 years now, but has never really struck a chord with the greater spotted British reader. Probably this is because his books tend to be what one might, in the spirit of one of Adair’s narrators, call “too clever-clever by half” – and I love them. They range from black comedies with a gay undertow (Love and Death on Long Island, filmed with John Hurt, and the superb Buenas Noches Buenos Aires) through Hitchcockian romps (The Key of the Tower) to tricksy conceits (A Closed Book, told entirely in dialogue). His best novel for me though is 1992’s The Death of the Author, a Nabokovian satire on culture and sexual politics.
In 2006 Adair took his smarts in an entertaining new direction with a pastiche of Agatha Christie-type mysteries, entitled – cleverly, of course – The Act of Roger Murgatroyd, which was not only a terrific play on one of Christie’s most famous titles, but also the only murder mystery I know of where the identity of whodunit is revealed in the title (and believe it or not, that’s not a spoiler). It introduced us to ‘the dowager duchess of crime,’ novelist Evadne Mount, who solved a perfect little country house Boxing Day murder in around 300 pages.
Now Adair, like Evadne, has done it again, and we have a sequel. To those of us surprised by this sudden attack of triplicate in his sixties (online bookstores are now listing these books as part of ‘The Evadne Mount Trilogy’), Adair offers a foreword which is both brazen and shamefaced:
I’ve always made it a point of honour never to repeat myself. Later, however, it occurred to me that I had never written a sequel before (to one of my own books, at least) and hence, applying what I acknowledge is a slightly warped species of logic, to write one now would represent another departure for me.
And so we have A Mysterious Affair of Style, another Christie-based pun of a title and another outing for Evadne Mount. It is ten years later, but like her co-star of the earlier book, Chief Inspector Trubshawe, Mount has not aged a bit, just like Christie’s own sleuths: “Why, I wager, if I were to run into you again in ten years’ time, you still wouldn’t have aged.”
This is one of a series of running jokes in the book, some good and others not so (such as the one about people never knowing the difference between the producer of a film and the director: really?). The text is also littered with literary references, like calling one of Mount’s novels Death: A User’s Manual, playing on Georges Perec’s postmodern novel of a very similar name. And if you still haven’t quite got the picture of just how far Adair will go in playing textual games, this is the man who translated from the French Perec’s novel La Disparition (as A Void), which was entirely devoid of the letter e. He also allows his characters to meditate on the sort of novel they are appearing in:
It’s my theory, you see, that the tension, the real tension, the real suspense, of a whodunit – more specifically, of the last few pages of a whodunit – has much less to do with, let’s say, the revelation of the murderer’s identity, or the untangling of his motive, or anything the novelist herself has contrived, than with the growing apprehension in the reader’s own mind that, after all the time and energy he has invested in the book, the ending might turn out to be, yet again, a letdown. In other words, what generates the tension is the reader’s fear not that the detective will fail – he knows that’s never going to happen – but that the author will fail.
The story, being film-based, gives Adair the opportunity to indulge his love of cinema (he was formerly the Independent’s film critic) and to recreate the ups and downs of the golden age of Hollywood: or at least Pinewood. A famous film director, based on Alfred Hitchcock, has died and on the set of his last film, now being completed by his assistant, one of the stars is poisoned. Fortunately Evadne Mount and ex-Chief Inspector Trubshawe are to hand…
It’s hard to say much more except that Adair handles the pace slightly less well than in The Act of Roger Murgatroyd – despite this book being a little shorter, there are more longueurs – though the characters are cleanly distinct and the whole is pervaded with a sense of playfulness. The solution to the central mystery did not seem all that surprising to me, which made me wonder if there is another, deeper, solution buried in the text. It would account, after all, for those repeated and obvious typos which I began to suspect were clues (take the missing letter from each…), and also for the title, which otherwise has no direct meaning for the plot. There’s only one thing for it. You’re going to have to read it too and help me out. The parody crime novel: together we can crack it.