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Dec 28, 2011

The Act Of Roger Murgatroyd: Gilbert Adair

The Act Of Roger Murgatroyd

Having fallen into a reading slump recently, which is somewhat criminal of me, I decided to look for something light, fun, and potentially enjoyable. So, who better an author to sit back with than Gilbert Adair, a man whose novels come laden with lingusitic tricks and twists? And what better a book than The Act Of Roger Murgatroyd (2006), if only because its subtitle is An Entertainment. Oh, I needed entertaining.

This book, then, is a pastiche of the murder mystery genre, the style fitting that of the Agatha Christie mould. In fact, its title is a play on Christie’s The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd, which I’ve never read, so I’m sure there are plenty of in-jokes that went over my head, although ignorance of them is not needed in order to enjoy this novel. But, that one novel aside, there are many nods and winks to Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot that I was able to pick up on, if only through television adaptions.

Set on Boxing Day, in 1935, Raymond Gentry (”a professional snitch”) is murdered in the attic of ffolkes manor in Dartmoor. What makes it all the more intriguing is that the attic is locked from the inside. Snowed in with everyone suspicious of the other, step forward Evadne Mount, writer of the Alexis Baddeley series of whodunits, and Chief-Inspector Trubshawe, retired of Scotland Yard, to solve the case. And solve it they do, albeit with little sleuthing and much dialogue, making this somewhat reminiscent of Adair’s A Closed Book, while being nothing like it at the same time.

As you would expect, especially after he has unearthed much of their dirt, everyone in the manor has their own motives for killing Gentry, which Mount relates to Trubshawe:

You’ll excuse me, I trust, if I decline to go into greater detail about the painful things we all had to hear about each other. All I’m prepared to say is that, when we turned in that night, there wasn’t one of us who wouldn’t have rejoiced if Raymond Gentry had been struck down by a thunderbolt.

Or, for that matter (she concluded), by a bullet.

As you can tell from that passage, Adair enjoys playing within the conventions of the classic murder mystery, knowingly using stereotypes and clich├ęs that would otherwise damn a novel, which Trubshawe lists in one of his fiction versus reality rants that I can only assume references actual Christie novels:

“…apart from locked rooms, you’ll find the whole trumpery bag of tricks. You know, a secret passage that only the murderer has a key to. A clock and mirror facing each other at the scene of the crime, meaning the dial was read in reverse. Some black sheep of a family shipped off to South Africa and supposed to have died there, except that nobody’s certain he really did. All the usual whodunit hoohah. Load of codswallop, if you ask me. “

So how does The Act Of Roger Murgatroyd differ from more cosy murder mysteries? Well, one way is to add a postmodern slant to the text, so that not only do we have a narrative but a conscious playing with the structure. Another is to include references to the author, the publisher (faber & faber) and observations of how it’s just like being in a book. And finally, there’s the ballsy unveiling, without being in any way a spoiler, of the murderer in the title. But while I never solved the crime myself, despite a few moments where I circled around the rather ingenious solution, I’m proud I wasn’t led along by the many red herrings scattered throughout.

In comparison to other Adair novels, The Act Of Roger Murgatroyd is lighter in tone, the verbal trickery not as intense as something like Buenas Noches Buenos Aires, but it’s still, just as it promises, entertaining. And being the first in the Evadne Mount trilogy, there’s thankfully two more acts to look forward to.

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