The novelist, screenwriter and critic Gilbert Adair (who died last year) was above all a postmodernist, one whose work riffed and built self-consciously on pre-existing works. I’m a big fan of Adair and enjoy postmodern fiction too but an appreciation of his output inevitably depends on, and is directly proportional to, how well readers might a) know the works of say Proust (The Key to the Tower), Thomas Mann (Love and Death in Long Island) or Agatha Christie (the Evadne Mount series); and b) their willingness to forego traditional narrative and character empathy for a more rarefied intellectual response. His trilogy of Christie pastiches, beloved by some (me included) but abhorred by others, may be his best-known engagement with the crime and mystery genre, but A Closed Book is much closer to the real thing and seriously undervalued.
I offer this (revised) review as part of the Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott at her Pattinase blog.
“I know, I know. It makes no sense for a blind man to be afraid of the dark.”
Adair’s affection for the detective genre, especially its Golden Age variant, is perfectly understandable if one considers how playful the genre could get in the 1920s and 30s – just look how closely the likes of Philip MacDonald and John Dickson Carr, by directly sparring with their readers, came to deconstructing the genre they served. Adair’s (far from uncritical) fondness comes across particularly forcefully in his Agatha Christie pastiches featuring Marple-like detective Evadne Mount and is in my view much less severe and misanthropic than Paul Auster’s equivalent New York Trilogy for instance. In And Then There Was No One, the third and seemingly final of his series, Adair seems to take recursive fiction about as far as it can go by interjecting himself into a new narrative in which his creation is real but has Pirandellian criticisms of how she is depicted in her creator’s work; and yet the book also tries to hang on to the vestiges of the genre by providing a genuine entertainment on top of his carefully calculated critiques and ironies about authors, critics, the publishing industry and much more besides. However, the book of his that so far has really come closest to creating something new within the detective genre without abandoning his postmodern intention was A Closed Book (1999), which has a strong plot, a good payoff and a very clever twist in its tail, one that to work relies on how readers will interpret the way that text can be printed on the page.
“What possible excuse could you find for deceiving a blind man?”
It is primarily a tale of psychological suspense rather than a detective story, in the style of Frances Iles’ celebrated novels Malice Aforethought (1931) and Before the Fact (1932), the latter filmed with massive changes by Hitchcock as Suspicion (1941), a film adaptation Adair was certainly aware of. Sir Paul is a wealthy, celebrated author who has become a recluse following an accident in which he was blinded. Looking to write one more book, an autobiographical work, he hires John Ryder to become his live-in helper for a year to act as his eyes and produce the manuscript. One of the innovations of the book is that to try to replicate Sir Paul’s blindness, the story is told entirely through dialogue with no descriptions – so we rely completely on the words as spoken and reported as well as Sir Paul’s unspoken thoughts, which instead are represented in italics in separate paragraphs. If anything is described it is done purely through dialogue so the effect is very much like a radio play – indeed, the book could work extremely well if adapted that way, though not without some difficulty …
“Why is it I’m glad, why is it I’m relieved, that John is out?”
The novel eventually develops into a cuckoo in the nest story as it becomes clear that John is deliberately misleading Sir Paul and it doesn’t take long before we start to suspect that he harbours murderous intentions. There is one scene towards the end that is sexually explicit and disturbing but doesn’t feel gratuitous as it serves to anchor the admitted artificiality of the story in the pain of a very real personal tragedy as the direct result of human cruelty. A Closed Book is probably my favourite of Gilbert Adair’s postmodern dalliances with the crime genre (I discuss some of the others here) and remains suspenseful throughout its 250 pages right to its end, leading to an especially clever twist in the tail which surprises even though quite fairly prepared for. It won’t be for everyone, but is a pretty singular novel in conception and execution – no mean feat after 150 years of development in the genre.
Adair later adapted his book into a screenplay for distinguished Chilean auteur Raoul Ruiz (it was to be their third and final collaboration). The resulting film, released in 2010, was always going to be very difficult to achieve given the literary nature of the original and is not too bad though quickly sank without creating much of a ripple. It starred Tom Conti as Sir Paul while the role of John was subjected to a gender switch, sadly dispensing with the book’s homoerotic subtext, with Darryl Hannah now cast as Jane. Miriam Margolyes was very well cast as Mrs Kilbride, the cook. It works fairly well as a clever cat and mouse game of a thriller, and at 88 minutes certainly doesn’t outstay its welcome. The book remains far superior though.