The Act of Roger Murgatroyd is the first in Gilbert Adair’s series of Evadne Mount detective novels, and if you know much Agatha Christie, you’ll notice right away that this is a send-up of one of her best-known works. It’s sort of the ultimate in Mayhem Parva, English country house, locked-room, upstairs/downstairs murder mysteries. It’s set in a snowy West Country winter. The English country house is actually on Dartmoor, and one of the victims is attacked while walking out on Dartmoor, and the prison gets a mention. There’s a perfect cast of actor, doctor, vicar, vicar’s wife, colonel. And the detectives&mash;Evadne Mount, writer of detective fiction (but not of any locked-room mysteries, thank you very much) and Chief Inspector Trubshawe, retired of Scotland Yard and conveniently located in the neighborhood.
My impressions of this novel were a bit off. I was expecting something denser and probably too referential and postmodern for me to actually enjoy. In fact the book was light; clever but not too clever, and while it certainly name-dropped and hinted more subtly all over the detective fiction world it still managed to surprise.
And that might be what’s most postmodern about it in the end. “Normal” detective fiction is wrought within a genre. There are constraints, some tight, some loose. You wouldn’t call them rules but there is definitely a framework. And working within that framework can be both restrictive and freeing. You have a base you can use as a jumping-off point for other things. But you must be original and, for a mystery at least, surprising within that framework. That often means bending and stretching the constraints. But here, constraints are followed to an almost impossible degree. The quintessential English country house murder mystery can’t be much of a rulebreaker or genre-bender. But somehow even so—even working within the ultimate constraint of pulling off a reveal in line with the novel’s namesake, which is somehow still unexpected (or I am really dense, of course)—there is suspense and excitement. There’s also a lot of humor, some a bit clever and cloying but not at all out of place if what you want is a bit of a cozy English mystery to begin with. And a new comfort-reading series is adopted!