The Death of the Author by Gilbert Adair

Adair Death of the AuthorI discovered Gilbert Adair because he wrote a series of parody-mysteries of famous Agatha Christie works, for example, The Act of Roger Murgatroyd, which, I should say, is hilarious and clever and a toy made to the exact specifications of a locked-room mystery lover with a sense of humor.

But I didn’t realize The Death of the Author would be basically the same kind of mystery. Not a locked-room one, I don’t mean, at least not in the physical sense. But an impossible-murder mystery, of which the locked-room variety is but a subtype.

The novella opens with a meeting between the narrator, Leo Sfax, and a young woman named Astrid. He agrees to something she wants to do, she leaves, and he sits at his computer and begins to type, and tells the reader that at that point, he typed out the four pages she has just read.

The Sfax goes on to narrate his life story starting in childhood, which was spent in pre-War France. During the German occupation, Sfax kept his head down, and he emigrated to the US a few years into the peace. There, he went from shelving and selling books in Greenwich Village to writing them in a fictional New Haven, becoming the darling of elite comparative literature departments throughout the English-speaking world. We find out that Astrid was a graduate student at his university, and that he was not her director but worked closely with her, she falling in love with his Theory—which is, by the way, the Death of the Author. Astrid has recently called a meeting with him, whose purpose he does not know. She proposes writing a biography of Sfax. He agrees, she leaves, and he sits at his computer and begins to type, and tells the reader that at that point, he typed out the forty-one pages she has just read.

One more time. But this time, Sfax says he’s been lying. That stuff about what happened in France, it was a it more unsavory than he’d like anyone to believe. He’s built his life in America, deliciously, propounding a theory that he hopes to use to exculpate himself from authorship of Nazi-tinted writings during his collaborative period. And even more deliciously, the more he tried, with efforts at obscurity, to kill that author, the more he exposed himself to eventual exposure.

The dramatic and literary climax of the novella has, I think, at least two “collapses” that I won’t outline, maybe more. A precious postmodern puzzle-piece, The Death of the Author gave me at least one thing other than the pure pleasure I take in reading such mysteries: the realization that perhaps I like them so much because they are mysteries, just like my beloved Agatha Christies and Dorothy Sayers are mysteries, and like my big book of locked-room mysteries is full of mysteries. Not because of anything profound or fashionable (or fashionably unfashionable?), but for the fun of the puzzle.

The Act of Roger Murgatroyd by Gilbert Adair

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!