In an age in which fiction teems with scalpel-wielding psychopaths and alcoholic coppers, is there still room for crime novels of a more genteel demeanour, by novelists who embrace the gentler virtues of an earlier era? Gilbert Adair clearly thinks so, and this second novel featuring his middle-aged sleuth Evadne Mount attempts again to pull off a double whammy: a recreation of the Golden Age crime novel à la Agatha Christie, and (simultaneously) a ruthless parody of the absurdities of that era.
Does Adair repeat the trick of his The Act of Roger Murgatroyd? The answer is not as clear-cut as it might initially seem. Adair has an impressive panoply of cultural references, entertainingly displayed. The first line of A Mysterious Affair of Style is the exclamation "Great Scott-Moncrieff!", although the reference to Proust's translator has no relevance beyond showing that we are in for a clever parody.
Adair clearly yearns for crime fiction in which the spilling of entrails was done tastefully offstage, and pleasure was simply to be found in the solving of an ingenious puzzle. This very artificiality was ruthlessly anatomised by Raymond Chandler in an essay that used the darker reality of American crime fiction as a stick with which to beat the thin-blooded British variety.
Adair is having none of Chandler's caveats, and throws himself enthusiastically into a well-heeled 1940s milieu. A decade after the murder case Evadne tackled in The Act of Roger Murgatroyd, she accidentally runs into her lugubrious ex-colleague, retired Chief Inspector Trubshawe. The duo are soon on the track of a clever killer who has murdered a film actress, even as the cameras rolled. As in classic Christie, we are presented with five suspects who might have slipped the dead woman the poisonous draught.
The characterisations here are as outrageously over-the-top as ever, and Adair's skill in reinvigorating the tropes of the Golden Age affords light-hearted fun. But there is a problem. Adair so unerringly points up the silliness and contrivance of this kind of vintage narrative that the novel finally functions only on the level of a rather cold-eyed detonation of the genre. It's almost as if Chandler had written a merciless Christie pastiche in order to drive a final nail into the old girl's coffin.
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