Gilbert Adair

Gilbert’s Games and the Golden Age of Murder – by Martin Edwards Gilbert Adair’s last three novels reflect a fascination with the crime fiction genre also evidenced in his earlier work, notably in his take on the novel of psychological suspense, A Closed Book (1999). The Act of Roger Murgatroyd (2006) introduced Evadne Mount, and amounts to a pastiche of Agatha Christie’s work in particular and Golden Age detective fiction in general. Adair said that he liked to think of The Act of Roger Murgatroyd as the 67th full-length Agatha Christie murder mystery, and wrote it after spending two years reading the 66 written by Christie herself as preparation for is work on “a celebration-cum-critique-cum-parody of what remains perhaps her most ingenious and celebrated thriller, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.”[1]

The novel’s premise was summarised by Andrew Taylor, himself a crime writer of distinction: “The scene is a house party at ffolkes Manor on snowbound Dartmoor in the 1930s. On Boxing Day, the corpse of the gossip columnist Raymond Gentry is found with a bullet through his heart in the attic. There is no trace of the gun and the door is locked inside. The weather insulates the house from the world: the murderer must be one of house party (servants don't count, of course). The phone isn't working, the nearest police station is 30 miles away, and the roads are impassable. Fortunately, help is at hand in the form of a pipe-smoking neighbour, ex-Chief Inspector Trubshawe, and his faithful labrador Tobermory.”[2]

The cast includes detective novelist Evadne Mount, author of mysteries such as Faber or Faber (concerning “identical twin fratricide”), The Mystery of the Green Penguin (green being the colour Allen Lane chose for Penguin paperback editions of crime novels) and Oedipus v. Rex. Her unpublished work includes a lesbian novel in the Radclyffe Hall tradition, The Urinal of Futility. The recurrent exclamation “Great Scott Moncrieff!” references Proust’s translator, who gave his name to the Scott Moncrieff Prize. Awarded annually for French into English translation, the Prize was won by Adair in 1995 for A Void, his translation of Georges Perec’s lipogrammatic novel, La Disparition.

Adair was by no means the first writer to recognise the potential of the detective story form for parody and other forms of literary experiments and games. The “Golden Age of detective fiction”, a term commonly associated with the cerebral whodunits written in Britain (but also in the United States and elsewhere) during the period between the two world wars. This was an era when intellectual game-playing became exceptionally popular. The craze for crossword puzzles was matched by enthusiasm for “fair play” mysteries in which readers pitted their wits against writers, in the hope of solving murder puzzles before the Great Detective – Hercule Poirot, say, or Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey – revealed all. “Rules” for writing detective stories were proposed by such unexpected authorities on the genre as T.S. Eliot and A.A Milne, as well as by the American aesthete Willard Huntingdon Wright (who wrote mysteries as S.S. Van Dine) and, most famously, by Ronald Knox, who laid down ten “commandments” for authors.[3] Knox’s “rules” have often been misread by critics, who occasionally suffer a sense of humour failure when assessing Golden Age fiction, but he meant them as a joke. The reality is that he and his fellow detective novelists did not take themselves too seriously. They enjoyed playing games with the whodunit form, and would surely have enjoyed the games that Adair played with their genre.

Agatha Christie herself wrote a series of short stories early in her career which poked fun at “Great Detectives”. Her sleuthing duo Tommy and Tuppence Beresford ran a detective agency and, in solving cases, invoked the methods of fictional sleuths ranging from Sherlock Holmes to...Hercule Poirot. The parodies were eventually collected in Partners in Crime (1928), and at around the time the book appeared, Christie and a group of fellow detective novelists were invited by Anthony Berkeley Cox (better known by his pseudonyms, Anthony Berkeley and Francis Iles) to a series of dinners, which led to the formation of the Detection Club in 1930. Christie, Sayers, Knox and Milne were among the founder members of the Club, which retained exclusivity as a result of electing new members by secret ballot and seeking to restrict the intake to writers of “admitted merit”. The Club raised funds by publishing collaborative mysteries, including The Floating Admiral, a renowned “round robin” novel in which each chapter was written by a different member. In Ask a Policeman, half a dozen members contributed chapters parodying the methods of each other’s detectives. Berkeley’s chapter featuring Lord Peter Wimsey supposedly displeased Sayers, but she did not mind when her friend, the Club’s second President, E.C. Bentley, was prompted by her magnum opus Gaudy Night to produce a parody called “GreedyNight.”

For good measure, two middlebrow novelists, Margaret Rivers Larminie and Jane Langslow (a pseudonym for Maud Diver) collaborated on a full-length parody, Gory Knight (1937 ) in which Wimsey as well as Poirot and other major sleuths of the period were guyed. Dylan Thomas, who enjoyed and reviewed detective fiction, co-wrote a parody, The Death of the King’s Canary[4], that remained unpublished until long after his death, while the most memorable of countless post-war parodies of the classic whodunit include Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound, and Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth, which is dedicated to a list of “omniscient, eccentric, amateur” detectives, starting with Bentley’s Philip Trent.[5]

Adair was, therefore, working in a long-established tradition, but the post-modernist touch that he brought to The Act of Roger Murgatroyd supplied an extra dimension for those familiar with “Golden Age” whodunits. He concluded that:

“If an Agatha Christie novel appears to become increasingly suspenseful as it approaches its denouement, it's because the reader himself, already keyed-up, begins to grow as nervous as one of the suspects in the novel..This curious transference of narrative tension from the text itself to the reader made me realise, too, that Christie is arguably a more modern writer – even a postmodern writer, as we used to say – than she's ever given credit for. Consider a few of the more abstruse critical methodologies of the last four decades – psychoanalytical, semiological, ideological, etc. If there's a single characteristic shared by all of them, it's what might be called an allure of improbability...[but] Implausibilities, psychological or other, cease to matter. What does matter is that, like two players hunched over a chessboard, reader and author lock themselves in combat, each openly acknowledging the adversary's existence and skill. And, at their best, Christie's denouements are comparable to elegant chess endgames, if of a type whose aphoristic concision has next to nothing to do with the authentic parameters of the game.”

Adair described The Act of Roger Murgatroyd as an “entertainment”, and the book is, like the Golden Age mysteries to which he doffed his cap, best read as entertainment. The novel was generally approved by readers and reviewers alike, although Andrew Taylor argued that “this type of parody works best as a sprint and is difficult to sustain over the marathon of full-length novel.” There is a good deal of evidence to support this view. Gory Knight, for instance, has too many longeurs, whereas the short story “The Murder at the Towers”, by E. V. Knox, brother of Ronald and editor of Punch, is witty and effective from start to finish. Taylor concluded that: “Adair gives us some excellent jokes but, in the end, his paradoxical achievement is to make us appreciate the solid literary virtues of Agatha Christie.”

Scathing dissent from the appreciative consensus came from Michael Dibdin, whose review dismissed the book as “Half-smart and immensely self-reverential”, and for good measure added: “Tom Stoppard is....cleverer and funnier than Gilbert Adair when it comes to this sort of thing.”[6] This was harsh, especially given that Dibdin, an accomplished and intelligent crime writer and well-read[7] but occasionally mean-spirited critic, had begun his own career as a novelist with The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, a pastiche not universally admired by fans of Arthur Conan Doyle. Indeed, in 1993, Dibdin had published a pastiche of the Golden Age murder mystery, The Dying of the Light (also published by Faber), which makes all the more surprising both his attack on Adair’s book, and his Channel Four TV programme, J’Accuse, which amounted to a feebly reasoned rant about the alleged shortcomings of Agatha Christie.

At first Adair rejected the suggestion that he should write a sequel to The Act of Roger Murgatroyd, “on the grounds that I’ve always made it a point of honour not to repeat myself”, but – characteristically – he was struck by the notion that, in the circumstances, for him to write a sequel would in itself be a new departure. Accordingly, he produced a second book in the same vein. A Mysterious Affair of Style (the title refers to Christie’s debut novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles) reunites Evadne and Trubshawe, more than a decade after their first case. Their investigation of the poisoning of an actress allows Adair to deploy his knowledge and love of films, and to invent Alastair Farjeon, a movie director based on Alfred Hitchcock. He makes enjoyable use of Christie’s favourite device of “the least likely culprit”, a plotting technique discussed at length by Evadne during the course of the novel.

When she and Trubshawe meet again, in the tea-room of the Ritz, Evadne argues that: “the real tension, the real suspense, of a whodunit – more specifically, the last few pages of a whodunit – has much less to do with, let’s say, the revelation of the murderer’s identity, or with the untangling of his motive, or anything the novelist himself has contrived, than with the growing apprehension in the reader’s own mind that...the ending might turn out to be, yet again, a let-down...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.”

Bearing in mind Andrew Taylor’s argument about the challenges posed by a full-length Golden Age parody, one might add that readers of Adair’s first two Evadne Mount books may worry that the quality of the entertainment cannot be sustained for the whole span of the novel. Adair seeks to maintain interest, and to compensate for any shortcomings in plot when his book is compared with the work of Christie and company, in two distinct ways. First, he has a good deal of fun with the tropes of the Golden Age whodunit, rather than merely parodying the literary style (or, some would argue, the lack of literary style) of Agatha Christie. Second, he piles on the jokes, often in the form of sly cultural references. One of Evadne’s novels, for instance, is Murder without Ease – which neatly combines a nod to Christie’s Murder is Easy with a pun about A Void, a book without the letter “e”. These techniques prove largely successful, but although Adair succumbed to temptation and wrote a third Evadne Mount book, he recognised that it was time for him to take a more radical approach. He found the answer – naturally, as the author of a book of essays entitled The Postmodernist Always Rings Twice – in a storyline more daring, and more overtly postmodern, than any other novel drawing on the traditions of the Golden Age detective story.[8]

The title of And Then There Was No One represents another hat-tip to Christie (author of And Then There Were None), to whom the book is dedicated. It was published in 2009, and the events of the story are set in 2011. This time, the story is told in the first person. The narrator is Adair himself, and he proves to be no more reliable than the narrator of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Adair attends a Sherlock Holmes festival in Meiringen, Switzerland, close to the Reichenbach Falls, where Holmes grappled with Moriarty before (apparently) plunging to his doom. A pastiche Sherlock Holmes story, more effectively done than the overwhelming majority of Sherlockian pastiches, is included, and there are plentiful references to G.K. Chesterton, creator of the priest-sleuth Father Brown, and first President of the Detection Club, as well as to Ronald Knox and his “rules”. But the main literary inspiration remains Christie. When Evadne Mount appears in the narrative, having hardly aged since the events of The Act of Roger Murgatroyd, Adair reminds us that Hercule Poirot too managed not to age in the course of his long career as a detective.

The murder victim is a Gustav Slavorigin, a controversial novelist whose unpleasantness enables Adair to indulge in a little catharsis when they discuss the first two Evadne Mount novels:

“Clever contraptions, both of them. You really caught the cardboard quality of her characters. Anyway, they helped pass the time.”

“Thank you.”

“Got good reviews, too, I noticed. Deserved to.”

“Thanks again.”

“Also a couple of stinkers.”

“Just one, I think. In the Guardian. Michael Dibdin.”

“Who died not long afterwards. Spooooky....”

Adair probably did not realise it, but even here he was following in the footsteps of a master of Golden Age detective fiction. Anthony Berkeley, regarded by Agatha Christie as the most ingenious of her colleagues in the Detection Club, also took revenge in his detective fiction[9] against the American man of letters, Alexander Woollcott, who once gave him a disobliging review.

At the heart of the story, however, is Adair’s extraordinarily skilful fusion of elements of reality, the fictional mystery of Slavorigin’s death, and the literary tricks of Christie and Conan Doyle. In the bizarre yet strangely poignant final scene, Evadne taunts Adair: “Postmodernism is dead … 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."And the story ends with Adair diving into the Reichenbach Falls.

The most insightful review of the novel came from Jake Kerridge in the Daily Telegraph[10]. He thought it superior to the first two books about Evadne, “which, for all their allusive larkiness, replicated the main fault of most classical whodunnits: after the discovery of the corpse, the writer is simply killing time for the bulk of the book until the revelation of the murderer... This novel is an immensely entertaining jeu d’esprit, a ragbag of puns and allusions that literary trainspotters will delight in rummaging in, but is there anything to distinguish it from a dozen other such books? I would say, yes: its quiet poignancy. Adair’s criticism of his previous Evadne novels is just one example of the honesty with which he writes about the shortcomings of his life and work here, and this lends the novel, for all its meta-fictional tricks...an emotional charge rarely found in whodunnits, parodies, postmodern fictions or any combination of the three.”

Kerridge’s acute remarks about poignancy proved sadly prescient. Adair never published another book. A stroke cost him his sight, a strange and shocking echo of A Closed Book, whose protagonist is a blind writer, and he died, far too young, in 2011, the year he had chosen for his fictional demise. For anyone else to say that these tragedies were themselves somehow ironic and postmodern – let alone “spooooky” – would be unforgivably tasteless, yet one suspects that Adair might have been unable to resist saying it himself. He was a witty and brave writer, and although the fact that he cast new light on the old ways of classic detective novelists represents only a fraction of his literary achievements, this is a feat that has eluded the vast majority of orthodox commentators on the genre. Like the misunderstood and under-estimated whodunits they teased and celebrated, his last three books and above all that extraordinary final novel deserve respect, admiration, and to be remembered.

Notes

1. Gilbert Adair, “Unusual suspect: Gilbert Adair discovers the real secret of Agatha Christie's success”, Guardian, 11 November 2006
2. Andrew Taylor, review of The Act of Roger Murgatroyd, Independent, 17 November 2006
3. In addition to half a dozen whodunits, Knox was also the author of a Sherlockian pastiche which earned praise from Arthur Conan Doyle himself.
4. Co-written with John Davenport, The Death of the King’s Canary was eventually published in 1976
5. Shaffer shared Adair’s fascination with classic detective fiction, and with his brother Peter co-wrote three now forgotten detective novels. He also wrote screenplays for three films based on Christie’s novels.
6. Michael Dibdin, review of The Act of Roger Murgatroyd, Guardian, 4 November 2006
7. Dibdin also compiled a wide-ranging anthology, The Picador Book of Crime Writing (1993)
8. Another contender for Best Postmodernist Take on Agatha Christie is Pierre Bayard’s Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? (1998), which offers a solution to the mystery different from Poirot’s.
9. In Panic Party (1934)
10. Jake Kerridge, review of And Then There Was No One, Daily Telegraph, 7 January 2009

(This essay first appeared in the Gilbert Adair Festschrift)