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Caroline Moore

Plagued by plagiarism

And Then There Was No One, by Gilbert Adair<br /> <br type="_moz" />

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And Then There Was No One

Gilbert Adair

Faber, pp. 258, £

And Then There Was No One, by Gilbert Adair

And Then There Was No One is a metaphysical murder mystery, a deconstructionist detective story, a post-modern puzzle — all of which could, very, very easily, become as arch and wearisome as persistent alliteration. But Gilbert Adair — though fantastically clever-clever, and horribly addicted not only to alliteration but also to puns and to literary in-jokes so self-referential that he is perpetually disappearing up his own recto (oh dear, his style is catching) — has created a hugely enjoyable entertainment.

And Then There Was No One is billed as the third in Gilbert Adair’s ‘Evadne Mount Trilogy’. Evadne Mount was the booming and betweeded crime-writer-turned- detective who stomped onto the stage, in shoes ‘so sensible you felt like consulting them on whether you should cash in your shares in Amalgamated Copper’, in Adair’s spoof Agatha Christie novels, The Act of Roger Murgatroyd and A Mysterious Affair of Style. Every Christie reader will spot those parodies of genuine titles; and the title of And Then There Was No One promises more of the same (And Then There Were None was the American title for Ten Little Niggers, or, in semi-sanitised later editions, Indians).

Yet the first Evadne Mount murder mystery was set in the 1930s, and the second a decade later (though, true to Christie conventions, the detective and her side-kick appeared to have aged not at all in the interim). And Then There Was No One, however, is set, as the first paragraph informs us, in 2011, when ‘Gustav Slavorigin … was murdered in the small Swiss town of Meiringen on the third day of its Sherlock Holmes festival’, to which Gilbert Adair has been invited as a guest speaker. If Evadne Mount is to be drafted in to solve this case, she must be pushing 120, yet prepared only in one sense to meet her maker.

When Gilbert Adair has given his reading of a spoof Sherlock Holmes story (‘The Giant Rat of Sumatra’, no less, the missing tale ‘for which’ Holmes said in ‘The Sussex Vampire’, ‘the world is not yet prepared’), Evadne Mount leaps up in the audience to accuse him of self-plagiarism: is she the ‘real’ prototype of his character, or the ‘actual’ character come to disconcerting life? She has appropriated the attributes invented by Adair, not only trumpeting ‘Great Scott Moncrieff!’, but also claiming to read the newspapers he made up for his novels: is she confusing fact and fiction, or is her creator suffering the Ordeal of Gilbert Adair?

Adair finds himself in the unenviable role of side-kick to his own detective (the Reichenbach Falls at Meiringen was of course the spot where Conan Doyle tried to dispose of the creation that threatened to dominate his life). The actual murder mystery — how is a man killed in a museum by an arrow shot without a bow? — is pleasingly unbelievable, as closed-room conventions demand; but the real puzzles are those that tease post-modernist writers and critics. The victim, for example, has written a detective novel called The Reliable Narrator, in which the twist is that the first person protagonist is actually ‘perfectly reliable’, but no one believes him. One of the suspects, a show-off film-buff know-it-all (who has accused the victim of plagiarism) has written a whodunit revolving around a group of American crime-writers ‘in frantically competitive pursuit of the ‘‘legendary’’ ending supposedly mentioned in passing by Poe in one of his letters to Hawthorne’. But the killer among them finds his brilliance at murder nullified by the discovery that he has inadvertently plagiarised Poe.

This sort of thing may not be at all to your taste. It is not generally to mine: I grew weary of anything that might be described as ‘ludic’ soon after that term became modish. Yet Adair has managed to tease and beguile even this jaded reviewer into enjoying this intelligent, silly, serious, sparkling little squib. The central conceit flirts outrageously with know-it-all conceitedness, but knows it does — a layer of self-consciousness that might merely have compounded the offence. It is Adair’s triumph to transmute this knowingness into apparently self-deprecating wit — a trick of charm which is as British as Agatha Christie.