The late Gilbert Adair (1944-2011) would have been 70 this year. He wrote essays, screenplays, film reviews, novels and much more besides. His books are usually about other books, and this clever whodunit was inspired by an acknowledged Agatha Christie classic. Is Murgatroyd the controversial attack on the Golden Age mystery in general, and Christie in particular, that some claim it to be? Or an affectionate pastiche? It could be a bit of both actually because this reader, on reflection, still found its cunning and humour equally beguiling, not least for concocting an outrageous but not completely implausible locked room murder method …
“Never known a locked-room murder to happen in real life,” he muttered to himself. “Might be worth writing to The Times.”
Celebrated mystery author Evadne Mount, a cross between Agatha Christie and her fictional alter ego Ariadne Oliver with just a dash of movie star Margaret Rutherford thrown in, is the star of this book, a locked-room mystery set circa 1936 in a snowbound country house over the Christmas holidays. The least likeable character, a gossip columnist with dirt on all the guests, has been found shot inside a locked attic and the murderer must be found. Trubshawe, a neighbour and more importantly a retired Scotland Yard Inspector, is asked to investigate until the proper authorities can be reached once the weather clears.
“You may like to think of it as a bit of a game, but, don’t forget, there’s not much point to any game, be it Ping-Pong or Mah-Jongg, if you refuse to abide by the rules.”
On re-reading Gilbert Adair’s four mysteries the phrase that kept coming to my mind is one used in film studies to describe a certain type of camera technique, the ‘unattributed point-of-view’ shot. In murder mysteries the POV of an unidentified character is used often to show the killer at work without giving away their identity, either as they spy on others or when they bump people off (often dramatically though unrealistically as they are seemingly staring at their gloved hands as they do the murder rather than looking at the victim). This is now a completely accepted part of modern film syntax (examples of it go back to the teens and twenties) even though it means that as a viewer we have to accept an abrupt shift from a neutral, seemingly objective third person mode of narrative presentation to a purely subjective one. It is this complex commingling of signifiers and narrative effects and codes, and the way that audiences (viewers, listeners and readers) have come to unquestioningly accept such narrative and representational conventions, that lies at the heart of what, with his quartet of mysteries, might be termed the ‘Adair project.’
“Oh, I know I’m a colourless character, a bit of a cookie cut-out figure.”
While some have questioned just how honourable Adair’s intentions with Roger Murgatroyd (and its sequels) actually were, what comes through time and again is his affection for the detective genre in general and a marvel for the effect it has on the reader, especially its Golden Age variant. This being a book by a master of the post-modern entertainment, there are plenty of literary references (the locked-rooms of John Dickson Carr and the moors and escaped convicts from The Hound of the Baskervilles all get a mention) as well as slightly more elaborate in-jokes. At one point we learn that Evadne once wrote a book about identical twins called ‘Faber or Faber’ and of course not only were Adair’s mysteries are all published by Faber and Faber, but despite the company name the publisher was founded solely by Geoffrey Faber, the second Faber added to the name purely for effect. The joke seems to extend even to the publisher’s ‘ff’ logo, which appears on the cover of the book, as the location for the mystery is ‘ffolkes manor.’
“You know who you are. Why don’t you speak up for yourself?”
On the other hand, as the author of The Death of the Author, one should expect games, tricks and postmodern effects. What is surprising is the extent to which Adair subordinates this desire to the needs of creating a plausible mystery – but then again, given that authorial invisibility is perhaps the main theme here, making it necessary therefore not to draw too much attention to Adair’s presence. indeed, one might argue that, as constructed, this is not a book written by Adair at all, but by someone who has enjoyed Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – because, without wanting to give too much away (this is a whodunit after all), is only with the closing sentence of chapter 12 that we realise quite what Adair is playing at:
“So it was that out dolorous little procession forged its slow and solemn path across the snow-mantled snow”
Why is this significant? Quite simply because until this point, 212 pages in, we the reader were sure we had been reading a book written in the third person. But in fact the author is the killer, only we don’t know who has in fact been narrating and won’t know that, of course, until the final chapter. Adair within the book itself has his characters debate the effect and power of the classic detective story’s denouement, something he described in a newspaper article which, fittingly, incorporated material ascribed to his Evadne Mount in the novel – here is how Adair himself expressed it:
“I realised that the real tension resides exclusively in the reader’s own mind … the reader himself, already keyed-up, begins to grow as nervous as one of the suspects in the novel … he can;t bear the prospect of its climax proving to be a letdown, either because it’s not clever enough or because it’s too clever by half.” Gilbert Adair’s article ‘Unusual Suspect’, published in review section of The Guardian newspaper (11 November 2006) and also available online)
My fellow blogger Patrick, who is not only a very precocious young whippersnapper but an all-round good egg, absolutely loathed this book – and as he is so often at his best when venting his spleen, I urge you to check out the detailed review-cum-deconstruction-cum evisceration that he performed for his blog, At the Scene of the Crime.
I recently wrote an essay on Adair’s five mystery novels – The Death of the Author (1992), A Closed Book (1999) and the Evadne Mount trilogy comprising The Act of Roger Murgatroyd (2006), A Mysterious Affair of Style (2007), And Then There Was No One (2009) – for a forthcoming festschrift dedicated to Adair being published by Verbivoracious Press. Details on the volume, including how to order a copy for a very modest outlay, can be found on their website: www.verbivoraciouspress.org/