Having already read Adair’s The Act of Roger Murgatroyd (2009), the title of which, consciously parodies Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), I felt I knew what to be expect when diving into the third in the series, And Then There Was No One (2009) (no prizes for guessing which Christie title is being parodied here). I was prepared for detective fiction conventions to be kindly mocked and satirised, for things commonplace in a straight detective novel, to become exaggerated and ridiculous and for frequent metafictional comments. Moreover, the book cover with a figure alluding to Sherlock Holmes and a picture of a Reichenbach Falls guide, I could even predict what canon of detective fiction was going to be subjected to parody and pastiche. And in part I did get this in And Then There Was No One, but my enjoyment of these parts became overshadowed by a theme which rather overtook the book as it progressed. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s begin with a good dose of self-parody with Gilbert Adair narrating his own story…
The story opens with our narrator relating the history of Gustav Slavorigin, a man we’ve just been informed has been murdered with an arrow through the heart, at a Sherlock Holmes festival in Meiringen, Switzerland. Gustav is a writer of mixed repute, occasionally producing a well-received book, but more famously writing a collection of rambling essays, one of which takes an anti-American polemical view of the Twin Towers attacks in 2001. It is unsurprising that this leads to a death threat going out proclaiming a 100 million dollar reward for Gustav’s head, a threat leaked out through the internet. All of which causes Gustav to go into hiding and hiring body guards.
The plot moves ahead to Gilbert’s own involvement in the story. Having apparently written The Unpublished Case Book of Sherlock Holmes, he is invited at the last minute to do a reading and take part in a Q & A at the Sherlock Holmes festival. Many of the other speakers are people he knows well: Hugh Spaulding, a thriller writer, whose series centres around sports; Pierre Sanary, a Swiss intellectual, who spends most of his time pointing out how people use other’s peoples’ ideas and work in their own creations, Hitchcock being a frequent offender in his eyes; Meredith Van Demarest and G. Autry. Umberto Eco is also supposed to be coming as well as a mystery guest. Gilbert is sceptical of both. At the festival Gilbert reads one of his Sherlock Holmes short stories: ‘The Giant Rat of Sumatra’ and this is given to us as a complete text (20ish pages), within the novel. It includes Watson failing abysmally at “reading” a client and the famous Holmesian dog in the night line being readapted:
“You should confine yourself, as I do, to minor oddities – such as this,” and he drew his forefinger along one of the floorboards and held up its tips for my inspection.
“Why… I see nothing there.”
“That is the minor oddity.”
A Q&A session, which is strongly parodic, yet erringly accurate follows. So far so good. In terms of plot there’s nothing particularly confusing. However, this all changes with the introduction of Evadne Mount. Evadne Mount, for those of who are familiar with series, is the serial amateur sleuth Adair uses. But in this novel, she is also a real woman, a middling author, whose appearance and character she has given to Gilbert to recreate in the Agatha Christie pastiches he makes. In this novel, Adair’s other novels are often mentioned such as in the Q&A:
“Talking of entertainments, you wrote two pastiches of Agatha Christie, The Act of Roger Murgatroyd and A Mysterious Affair of Style? Will there be a third?”
“Absolutely not. I have had my fill of cardboard characters and preposterous plotlines. What I desire to write now is something more personal, a work of genuine depth and ambition.”
Genuine novels by Adair, not from this series are also included as well but I noticed for the ones in this series (The Act of Roger Murgatroyd and The Mysterious Affair of Style), it seems the plots have been completely changed. Keeping up so far?
The plot becomes slipperier, an adjective employed by the reviewer from the Scotsman, as Evadne Mount increasingly employs the traits bestowed on her fictionalised version, created by Gilbert. The lines between reality and fiction, author, text and character become progressively more blurry within the novel, with Evadne acting like and also being treated like her fictional counterpart by other characters and in a way by the time the narrative reaches the murder of Gustav (which is announced on page 1), the rapid investigation, led by Evadne seems also inconsequential. This investigation of course includes many traits we are familiar with such as the point where the detective tries to make a case for each suspect to be guilty, in this case the speakers at the festival. The ending of the novel is suitably dramatic, even if any grip on reality is lost and is appropriately set at the Reichenbach Falls, a battle of brains and brawn between Evadne and the killer… In the revelation scene, a convention we are all familiar with, the very text is pulled apart, leaving the reader to re-examine what they have read, unsure what is true and what is false?
The instability of the text is what initially caused me to connect it with postmodernism, along with the presence of several key techniques/styles such as the ‘self-consciousness [that it is a text]… [the] parody, irony, [narrative and character] fragmentation’ (Felluga, 2011) as well as the unreliable narrator. In conjunction with this, a feeling of ‘disorientation’ (Felluga, 2011) for the reader at least is also present. I can certainly vouch for feeling confused and befuddled at points. There is the dream sequence, which is awfully reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Spell Bound (1945); a set of young twins appear periodically , given significance by Gilbert, which is inexplicable to the reader and bubbles also float their way in and out of the text, culminating in the novel’s climatic denouement. Intertextuality also features a lot in the novel as well, firstly through the use of footnotes, which in a way become a joke in themselves, Furthermore, Gustav (before he dies) tells his plans for his next novel. Yet while the content is different, the structure and techniques outlined are in fact mirrored in the actual novel being read and there are several points where there texts within texts. What makes this a parody of postmodernism is its intent. As Evadne rapidly unravels the novel, pointing out in a postmodernist self-reflexive style the artificial nature of the book being read, including a reference to the rules (Father Knox’s Decalogue) being broken, the effect is one of irony.
However for me, although very conscious of the irony and at times enjoying the resulting humour, the overall postmodernist concept is not well structured in the novel as a whole, meaning that a percentage of your time is spent trying to figure out what is happening and how much of it is real. It’s not that I don’t like stories which are postmodernist, meta-fictional or have more than one level of text, as in particular I really enjoyed Jose Carlos Somoza’s novel The Athenian Murders (2000). But the way And Then There Was No One is executed, I think results in characters doing things which don’t fit with who they are and there is a lack of a framework within which to place the events of the novel. Furthermore, I feel the space given to events prior to the murder of Gustav is too large in comparison to the meagre section afterwards, meaning any investigative is rapid and entails in a lot of rabbits having to be pulled out of hats to make the plot work. This means that for all the thoughts and concepts around authors and their characters (which are interesting and clever, especially when they interact and merge), the actual story itself is not satisfying as a whole.
Fellug, D. (2011). General Introduction to Postmodernism. Available: https://www.cla.purdue.edu/english/theory/postmodernism/modules/introduction.html. Last accessed 06/09/2015.