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.