A CLOSED BOOK by Gilbert Adair

Gilbert Adair is a postmodern novelist, which in his case means that much of his work riffs on previous publications to such an extent that the reader’s response to, or enjoyment of, it will be conditioned and directly proportional to a) how well they know the works of Proust (The Key to the Tower), Thomas Mann (Love and Death in Long Island) or even Agatha Christie (the Evadne Mount series) and b) their willingness to forego a certain degree of emotional attachment in the place of a more rarefied intellectual response.

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, which comes across particularly forcefully in his Agatha Christie pastiches featuring Marple-like detective Evadne Mount. In And Then There Was No One, the third and seemingly final of his series featuring Mount, Adair seems to take recursive fiction about as far as it can go and yet tries to hang on to the vestiges of providing a genuine genre entertainment on top of his carefully calculated critiques and ironies about authors, criticism detective stories, 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 forgoing his postmodern intention is 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.

It is primarily a tale of psychological suspense rather than a detective story, in the style of the celebrated Frances Iles’ novels Malice Aforethought (1931) and Before the Fact (1932), later filmed by Hitchcock as Suspicion (1941). 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 or Sir Paul’s unspoken thoughts which 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.

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 favousite 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 150years of development in the genre.

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7 Responses to A CLOSED BOOK by Gilbert Adair

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  4. richmcd says:

    I was a bit disappointed in this, mainly because the blurbs on the back led me to expect a much more twisty or extreme climax than there is – to me it seemed like the natural conclusion to the book from within the first few pages, so I assumed I was being deliberately misled to think that and was looking forward to being blindsided.

    Despite generally being a fan of postmodern detective fiction, I do find Adair’s self-reference very trying. It never seems particularly clever, only attention-seeking. Of course he acknowledges this in a lot of his books, but adding more and more layers of self-referencing self-deprecation just makes the problem worse. The way to fix a known problem in a story is to fix it, not draw attention to it.

    Much better than his awful Evadne Mount books though! It was genuinely tense for the first half.

    • richmcd says:

      I think, on reflection, that what’s disappointed me is that the book would be so much better if the story was told straightforwardly, without all the postmodernist trappings. And I mean this both in the sense of being a better story AND being a better conduit for Adair’s ideas. For example, why does he bother with the heavy-handed passage about the effect of presenting dialogue without description? He’s already made that point perfectly well by simply doing it for the previous 200 pages. It’s a clever and unsettling technique, one which doesn’t need to be drawn attention to later. And it’s not like it’s even very plausible that Paul should want to write that passage in his book, either as part of the book itself or as an attempt to trick John (Paul’s book doesn’t have any dialogue).

      If Adair had just had Paul write a more standard autobiography (albeit one that would turn out to be mostly lies), then there would have been a clear, simple juxtaposition between Paul and John’s different kinds of manipulation. We’d have learned more about the characters and Adair’s points about vision, fiction and truth would have been made organically rather than being rammed down the reader’s throat.

      • Sorry you didn’t like this one more Rich as it’s the one that really turned me on to Adair’s work (I should say that I thoroughly enjoyed the Evadne Mount books so clearly we are miles apart on this) – I take your point about what could have been different but I think this is a minor consideration really. I think if one looks at it as the sort of opposite of what Malcolm Bradbury did in The History Man (no quotations amrks or spacing for dialogue) I still think that this is a structurally very clever book in which he does something different and does it well, which in this day and age in the mystery genre is really hard to do. And if the blurb let you down, well, I don’t know about you, but I;ve had to get used to that … 🙂

    • Are you sure you’re a fan of postmodern detective fiction? 🙂

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