January 1, 2009
Occasionally a book arrives about which I feel more excited than I have any right to expect. It’s when this happens that I remember that the whole business of reading can be as much about these childlike pleasures of anticipation as intellectual reward or aesthetic delight. Gilbert Adair, arch-postmodernist, has written two Agatha Christie pastiches, the second of which I reviewed here last year. That book disappointed me a little, but I was nonetheless unreasonably excited when I got my hands on the third book in the Evadne Mount trilogy, And Then There Was No One. It may be the dramatic cover image, the wittily meticulous titular take on Christie’s most famous book, the amusing subtitle, or the possibility of even more reflexive authorial trickery than Adair usually permits himself:
As the reader gradually discovers, however, And Then There Was No One is much more than the third panel in a triptych of detective stories. It’s a novel like no other, a hall of mirrors, a hole-in-one, a tour de force of stylistic brio and narrative ingenuity, a conjuring act that ends with the conjuror, or author, actually sawing himself in half.
The playfulness even extends to the official Faber publication date: 25 December 2008. So is there more to And Then There Was No One than a clever literary confection? Should we care?
There are two obvious departures from the earlier Evadne Mount stories: first, the lady sleuth does not appear until almost halfway through; and second, instead of adopting the quaint omniscient voice of the traditional detective yarn, Adair has stepped into the story himself. He paints his narrative with verisimilitude by including real people (Carmen Callil, his agent Carole Blake), but the overall effect – as a postmodernist, his reputation exceeds him – is more akin to that of reading about ‘Bret Easton Ellis’ in Lunar Park than of ‘Somerset Maugham’ in The Moon and Sixpence.
This enables him to get away with bitching about the literary world (because, paradoxically, although it may indeed express his true views, we assume he would never be so indiscreet): at the start of the book, he is reading The Theory of Colonic Irrigation, “a fat, virtuosically executed novel by one of that new breed of American wunderkinder who, I would be lying if I denied it, are positively bloated with talent but who are also just too fucking pleased with themselves;” later, he has Carmen Callil, founder of Virago, refer to their modern classics line with blunt cynicism. He can also court controversy with impressively glib references to the World Trade Centre attacks, when a character notorious for anti-US sentiment publishes a book of essays about 9/11 which he wants to title “Come, Friendly Planes.”
The character in question is Gustav Slavorigin, Booker Prize-winning novelist, controversialist, recipient of a fatwa from a right-wing American recluse, and murder victim for Evadne Mount’s final investigation. His death takes place at Meiringen, Switzerland, famous location of the Reichenbach Falls and home to the annual Sherlock Holmes Festival. Adair has been invited as he has written a collection of Holmes stories (the book is set a few years in the future), including ‘The Giant Rat of Sumatra’ (referred to in a real Holmes story as one “for which the world is not yet ready”), which is reproduced here in full 30-page length. The witty conceit being, presumably, that having milked the Christie teat until dry, Adair then moved on to another defenceless dead author’s estate.
To say more of the plot would spoil it – not least in seeing how Adair gets around having the fictional Evadne Mount appear in an apparently non-fictional setting – but the story is only partly the point. As fans of the author (Adair-devils?) might expect, not a page passes without some linguistic felicity, whether base pun (“a Catalan delicatessen I frequented [called] the Salvador Deli”), witty description (“the totally bald Sanary resembled, with his poached-egg eyes and pale thin legalistic lips, a transvestite whose wig has just been snatched off”), or whimsical metaphor (“the train tranquilly unzipped the country’s flies from Oxford to London”). Sometimes he overdoes it, as when he has recourse to a footnote to explain a Francophone pun: but then again, this is what we would expect from ‘Gilbert Adair’, so it has a wit of its own. It means that, in its own register, the book is never less than good solid entertainment, a cleverer-than-thou equivalent of the defence made for Christie’s own stories.
However the triumph of And Then There Was No One is to enable Adair to follow and conclude his most straightforward books with his most self-referential and ‘too clever-clever by half’ to date – and while some will find this to be sterile intellectual masturbation, reading such stuff has always been a favourite solo activity for me. By the end, the reader is not entirely clear whether the book was written by Gilbert Adair, ‘Gilbert Adair’, or someone else entirely. Aside from such cleverness, there is an underlying sadness too, as Adair uses other characters to lacerate his own work with brutal honesty:
The point, Gilbert, is that you’ve always been such a narcissistic writer. Which is why you’ve never had the popular touch, not even when writing whodunits. No one but himself loves a narcissist, or even likes a narcissist – and, I must tell you, Jane and Joe Public know in advance that, because of your overbearing egotism, there’s going to be precious little room left in your books for them.
Postmodernism is dead, it’s so last century, it’s as hopelessly passé as Agatha Christie herself. Nobody gives two hoots about self-referentiality any longer, just as nobody gives two hoots, or even a single hoot, about you. Your books are out of sight, out of sound, out of fashion, and out of print.
Ouch. But even here, Adair has the upper hand, with the self-awareness to pre-empt such complaints by making them against himself. Within the book, he does the same retrospectively, by having a character observe of the earlier Evadne Mount novels: “You made yourself absolutely critic-proof, didn’t you? If the writing was brilliant, it was yours; if it was bad, it was poor old Agatha’s.” In other words, one might say, Adair wants to have his fake and eat it. And here he manages it, brilliantly, in the finest book of the trilogy by far; it’s a departure for the series but business as usual for Adair, and pleasure as usual for the reader.
November 22, 2007
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.