Sequels can be such a pain! Expectations after a success can be unfairly high, the pressure to succeed often crippling artistic instincts, co-opting authors into merely varying a winning formula by just a smidgen. But here I am attempting a second bite of the cherry – I tried really hard to convince blog-readers out there that the first Evadne Mount mystery, The Act of Roger Murgatroyd, was something special, and got thoroughly castigated for my trouble. Will I fare any better with the sequel? Well, I’ll hold on to my fedora and see what happens…
I offer this review for Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog.
“For what are detectives but the “critics” of crime? And what are critics – true critics, theoretical critics – but the “detectives” of cinema.”
Ten years have passed and our favourite mystery writer is set to meet Britain’s greatest film director – and bring some excitement into the life of an old policeman too … Author Evadne ‘Evie’ Mount, retired Scotland Yard Inspector Trubshawe and actress Cora Rutherford all return in this follow-up to The Act of Roger Murgatroyd. Trubshawe has moved back to London but is drowning in suburbia as his list of friends grows ever shorter – until his life is turned around when he unexpectedly bumps into Evie in the tea-room of the Ritz. The years have passed but physically these have not changed at all (in classic Golden Age fashion), though age does seem to have affected the fortunes of their old sparring partner, stage star Cora. Evie invites Trubshawe to a benefit show for which she has written a short sketch (slightly in the style of the compendium film Elstree Calling, for which Alfred Hitchcock apparently directed a segment) – and after the briefest of hesitations, he leaps at the chance. Things begin well but then a real murder apparently occurs on the stage and Evie jumps on the stage and takes charge – this is soon revealed as an elaborate gag, but should help tip the wink to the reader that there will be fun and games ahead as real and fake murder plots are intertwined.
“He owned a pleasant, semi-detached house in Golders Green in which he lived a pleasant, comfortable, semi-detached life.”
Cora is attempting a comeback with a supporting role in the new mystery by Alastair “Farje” Farjeon, a director modelled very closely on Alfred Hitchcock (the surname is taken from GAD author J. Jefferson Farjeon, whose play Number Seventeen was filmed by Hitch in 1932). Sadly for her the director has just been reported dead after his bungalow burned to the ground. But the film is going ahead with Farje’s former assistant taking over and Evie and Eustace are invited to the studio to watch Cora at work. But during a scene which was added at the last moment, with one of the actors drinking from a glass of champagne rather than breaking it, a death occurs (one that deliberately echoes Psycho) and is caught on camera. As Evie and Eustace are there as witnesses they decide to investigate, looking for some wort of link with the death of Farje, which may not after all have been an accident. But are the two connected at all? And how did the poison get in the glass given that the decision to have her drink from the glass was only made on the spur of the moment? The duel between Evie and Eustace – reminiscent of the sparring between Poirot and Inspector Giraud in Christie’s Murder on the Links – is escalated considerably than in the earlier book: if he solves the case, she will have to dedicate her next book to Christie, calling her ‘the best’ – and is she wins, the two will have to marry!
“I kept asking myself, “What would Farje have done? What would Farje have done””
The ‘auteur theory’ postulates that even in the cinema, as in literature, there is only one true author – the director. This mystery novel by explores this idea with typical Adair cunning and knowing humour, as one might have expected from a novelist who was also a frequent film critic and screenwriter. In his intro, Adair seems as surprised an anyone that he was asked to write a sequel something he initially refused to do so – until he realised that he had never written one before and so would not, in fact, be repeating himself (sic). Thankfully, the book is built on less specious and rather more solid foundation than such capricious and whimsical approach to fiction-making might suggest. One of the most entertaining aspects on this book is the formal duel between Evie and Eustace, reminiscent of the sparring between Poirot and Inspector Giraud in Christie’s Murder on the Links. Only here the stakes are much higher – if he solves the case, she will have to dedicate her next book to Christie, calling her ‘the best’ and is she wins, the two will have to marry!
There are echoes of Cameron McCabe’s postmodern extravaganza, The Face on the Cutting Room Floor (1937) in the plot of a murder caught on film though, for my money, the book that uses that idea best remain John Dickson Carr’s wonderful The Black Spectacles (aka The Problem of the Green Capsule) (review coming to Fedora very soon). But this is Adair so there are lots and lots of postmodern jokes on the ‘auteur’ theory courtesy of a French critic who is there to write a book on Farje who is meant to remind us of Truffaut. And once again Evie quotes from that article that Adair wrote about Christie in which she expounds on his theory that for the reader of a whodunit the contest is not with the detective at all but with the writer, the excitement predicated on discovering if the resolution will live up to their expectations, or not. Here Adair provides a plot that is not quite as clever structurally as Murgatroyd but which is thematically just as interesting and a much more varied milieu in and around the film studio. The ultimate resolution, which as the title told us all along, is based on a close analysis on the Farje film style (and it is worth remembering that in Hitchcock’s film, point of view was paramount), which proves highly satisfying as it allows Adair once again to explore his role as a postmodern author who builds and embroiders on the work of others. Authorial style would be at the core of the third and last of Evie’s cases, one that more than anything reads like a cross between Agatha Christie and Luigi Pirandello … And Then There Was No One (2009).
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 festschrift dedicated to Adair. This has just published by Verbivoracious Press. Paperback and ebook versions are available through the usual online sellers and directly from the publishers – visit their website at: www.verbivoraciouspress.org/