Fest by Mark Mccrum, book review: Perplexing murder-mystery in literary festival land


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Following hot on the heels of Lost For Words, Edward St Aubyn's mockery of literary prizes, Fest appears at first glance to be a wicked send-up of literary festivals. Surely they are ripe for satire, these proliferating parades of backbiting, puffery and envy, where authors drink and cavort after hours to console themselves about their minute signing queues, the lack of tickets Ljubljana sold and the dim wattage of the organiser's greeting.

Just as St Aubyn's Elysian Prize was somewhat easy to translate to the real world, so too seems Mark McCrum's Mold-on-the-Wold festival, set in a remote small town, where a mobile signal is rare and hot food after 10pm even rarer. The hills are alive with the sound of snarking, artistic egos run amok and anyone who's anyone wangles an invite to the local mansion, where all the hip people hang out.

The dramatis personae are introduced via their programme copy, which is a nice touch. "Sunday 20th July. 3pm. Small Tent. Francis Meadowes. The creator of the acclaimed George Braithwaite series of crime novels considers the history of the amateur detective in fiction…" Meanwhile, over in the Big Tent, Bryce Peabody, a charming and libidinous literary editor with a reputation for critical savagery, is promising to demolish a certain celebrity author.

But in the early hours of Sunday, Bryce is found dead in his hotel room. Foul play is not yet confirmed, but rumours swirl about those who had grudges against him: there are three unhappy ex-partners in town and a big-name author with whom he was feuding, not to mention a deranged wannabe, assorted druggies and (possibly) the celebrity he was on the brink of exposing as a fraud. But there's always a silver lining, and as Francis is one of the first on the possible crime scene, ghoulish curiosity sees a surge in his ticket sales.

Swipes at the vanity and insecurity of authors are not the mainstay of this book, however; it shakes down pretty quickly into a straightforward crime novel, albeit one with a cute concept.

Francis, a theoretical expert on crime with no actual experience, decides to try and solve the case, just like his hero. Oddly, the police seem happy to let him have a go. Even more oddly, all the suspects submit to his amateur questioning, with only the most cursory objections of "What's it got to do with you?" The finale is the classic "invite all the suspects into a room and eliminate them one by one" scenario, a whim of Francis's the police are again happy to indulge. More perplexing is the issue of Francis's character.

He is mixed-race, but seemingly lacks any trace of black cultural identity. Asked why his fictional detective is a white man, he explains: "I was adopted at a young age by white parents and grew up in a pretty white world," and so, he goes on, would be unable to create a convincing sleuth of London Afro-Caribbean origin. Which is rather convenient for McCrum. However, a crude jibe about Francis being a "coconut" later proves significant for the case.

I'm the sort of reader who gullibly gulps up any number of red herrings in a yarn such as this, but even so I had my eye on the perpetrator fairly early on. The eventual winding up of the mystery is ingenious, but the sprinkling of real-life authors McCrum drops in make his fictional festival less, not more believable. Who could doubt that Will Self or Sebastian Faulks would quickly elbow plodding Francis aside and solve the mystery themselves?