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Dec 28, 2011

A Mysterious Affair Of Style: Gilbert Adair

A Mysterious Affair Of Style

It’s not often that I read books by the same author one after the other but I enjoyed Gilbert Adair’s The Act Of Roger Murgatroyd so much that the only logical thing to do was dive straight into its sequel - and second book in the Evadne Mount trilogy - A Mysterious Affair Of Style (2007). I was hoping for more of the same, a murder mystery with a postmodern twist, and, in this, it delivered, although I was left feeling that I’d read it too soon after The Act Of Roger Murgatroyd, and this put it firmly in the shadow of its predecessor.

Where the action of the first novel took place within the claustrophobic environs of ffolkes Manor, A Mysterious Affair Of Style shifts to London, notably a film studio, in the 1940s. As expected, references to the golden age of crime fiction are there and, given Adair’s passion for cinema, are coupled with plenty of jokes (and in-jokes) pertinent to the film industry that generally work, although a few soon become tiring such as the ongoing confusion over the roles of director and producer.

It’s ten years since Evadne Mount solved the case at ffolkes Manor and, as Chief Inspector Trubshawe, formerly of Scotland Yard, notes when they bump into each other at the Ritz, recognising each other instantly as, in a nod to Agatha Christie, who never let Poirot grow old, “It’s almost as though time stood still”. From here these two old partners in (solving) crime renew their friendship and it’s only a matter of time before Mount’s actress friend, Cora Rutherford, is inviting them to watch her on the set of Alastair Farjeon’s (a thinly disguised Hitchcock) new film, If Ever They Find Me Dead.

Fittingly Farjeon has been found dead and his assistant is in control of the new film. As it is, the production is skating on thin ice and all it doesn’t need is more tragedy striking, which is exactly what happens when the aforementioned actress drops dead during filming. Now, while there are plenty of suspects for Mount and Trubshawe to bring to task for the murder, none of them have a motive. And the stakes get higher when the elderly couple challenge each other in the solving of the case with some drastic forfeits should either lose.

A Mysterious Affair Of Style hobbles along on its own momentum, pausing for long dialogues and passages on the nature of whodunits, throwing in all manner of jokes literary and cinematic, obvious and obscure. For examples. Mount’s favourite exclamation - “Great Scott-Moncrieff!” - is a reference to the translation award Adair won for bringing Perec’s La Disparition to English as A Void. Whereas a film titled An American In Plaster-of-Paris is bordering on groanworthy. Regardless, it’s all playful, even if it doesn’t alway pay off.

For a murder mystery there’s not much sleuthing either, Mount eschewing logical methods and instead trusting the intuition of her itchy bottom. But, as murder mysteries go, A Mysterious Affair Of Style doesn’t quite deliver and this may be because, as in Mount’s words, referring to one of her less successful novels, “it’s too clever for its own good. It’s what you might call clever-clever, which sounds twice as clever as clever itself but is actually only half.” This is certainly true of the conclusion which don’t really hit as hard as Mount’s formula for crime writing:

“When the revelations come tumbling out one after the other, the impact on the reader has got to be instantaneous. They’ve got to hit you - practically smack you - in the face.”

While it’s a readable, playful book - trademark Adair, then - it is capable of instigating the occasional smirk at its knowing humour and references, but as a whole it doesn’t really deliver. There may be more to it, as deliberate spelling errors - missing letters, additional letters - can be found at many points. To my mind the mysterious affair of style, aside from that within the novel, is the notion that Adair is emulating Mount’s style and the errors may hint that something is not quite right, and if so, then, through his main character, the author throws one last knowing wink to the reader:

“My publishers, my readers, my critics - well, most of them,” she qualified, not quite suppressing an embryonic snarl - “they all tell me that my latest book, whichever it happens to be, is wonderful, is terrific, is the finest so far, though we all know it’s a dud.”

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