Gilbert Adair has toyed with crime fiction before: A Closed Book can be read as his take on the psychological thriller. Now he turns his attention to the Mayhem Parva whodunnit. The scene is a house party at ffolkes Manor on snowbound Dartmoor in the 1930s. On Boxing Day, the corpse of the gossip columnist Raymond Gentry is found with a bullet through his heart in the attic. There is no trace of the gun and the door is locked inside. The weather insulates the house from the world: the murderer must be one of house party (servants don't count, of course). The phone isn't working, the nearest police station is 30 miles away, and the roads are impassable.
Fortunately, help is at hand in the form of a pipe-smoking neighbour, ex-Chief Inspector Trubshaw, and his faithful labrador Tobermory. Trubshaw accepts Colonel ffolkes's invitation ("with a coiled and almost catlike alacrity") to conduct a preliminary investigation. No one regrets Gentry's death - the man was a muckraker, a bounder who wore Nile-green wellies and was rude to the servants - but justice must be done. A note found in Gentry's pocket suggests that he was killed to prevent him from spilling the beans about one of the house party.
Everyone has a dark secret. One by one, the revelations spill out - cowardice, robbery, abortion, false identity, drunkenness, drugs and unorthodox sexual practices. One of the great pleasures of the novel is Evadne Mount, the celebrated writer of detective stories, who has an unpublished lesbian novel in her bottom drawer ("The Urinal of Futility"). Her better-known works include "Faber or Faber", a case of "identical-twin fratricide". The other suspects are the famous actress Cora Rutherford, with whom Evadne once shared a very small flat with a very large bed, members of the ffolkes family, Farrar their land agent, a clean-cut young American, and the local GP and the vicar, together with their wives.
The story is thick with in-jokes. "Great Scott-Moncrieff!" exclaims Trubshaw at one point; and the doctor's wife goes to one of Gerald and Sara Murphy's parties in Villefranche, where she makes a very undesirable friend ("How could an Englishwoman like me sink so low as to consort with an Albanian?"). The publishers describe the book as an "hommage". Adair echoes Graham Greene and calls it "an Entertainment", a better description. Unfortunately, it entertains only some of the time, perhaps because this type of parody works best as a sprint and is difficult to sustain over the marathon of full-length novel.
The book flatters the reader's intelligence at first but the pastiche of 1930s prose is oddly uneven, and the narrative has too many knowing winks for its own good. Adair gives us some excellent jokes but, in the end, his paradoxical achievement is to make us appreciate the solid literary virtues of Agatha Christie.
Andrew Taylor's latest novel is 'Naked To The Hangman' (Hodder & Stoughton)Reuse content