by Gilbert Adair Faber & Faber, 258pp, £14.99 Review by TOM ADAIR
GILBERT ADAIR'S SUPERB FIRST novel, The Holy Innocents (winner of the Authors' Club First Novel Award, yet unlisted among the titles to which he lays claim on the "by the same author" page of this volume – of which more later), carries the following dedication:
Dear Danielle and Guillaume,
From you, as you will find, I have borrowed your names, faces, gestures, a catchword here and an item of clothing there. In short, I have borrowed merely the interest; the capital I have left intact. And if this novel is a roman a clef, the only key is to the author himself and his fantasies.
As we discover, mid-way through his latest (and possibly final) novel, And Then There Was No One, Adair might as readily have written the same dedication to the heroine of his previous two spoof detective stories – The Act of Roger Murgatroyd and A Mysterious Affair of Style – namely, the authoress-cum-sleuth, Evadne Mount.
Mount, initially, we were given to understand, was Adair's creation, a tailor-made heroine meant to propel Adair's deliciously ingenious spoof-plots towards their Agatha Christie-like consummation, but now it transpires she was (indeed is) rather closely based on a real-life author, met at a soire at the home of Virago publisher, Carmen Callil.
Adair confides that he borrowed her name, her face, her gestures, merely burnishing her plumage, then adding decibels and a catch phrase or two, and hey presto!
His little subterfuge (and Evadne Mount's to boot, for it is clear that she was complicit in the hijack – a deal struck for money and in the interests of reviving Evadne's all-too-doldrumed writing career) might (and should) have stayed hush-hush. But, as is explained in this cliff-hanging tale, Evadne decides to invade Adair's privacy, turning up in the middle of what until then is a memoir of his attendance at a festival for Sherlock Holmes aficionados and erudite Sherlockians (among whom Adair claims some eminence) in the little Swiss town of Meiringen on the edge of the Reichenbach Falls.
During a question and answer session Evadne makes mischief and pricks Adair's conscience (for he has failed to adhere to the letter of their contract). She sticks around. Thus, she is centre stage when the festival's mystery guest arrives like a comet from outer darkness, a major meteor in the literary firmament: Gustav Slavorigin.
Slavorigin is a controversial novelist/polemicist who has won the Booker Prize. And he has a price ($1 million) on his head, the result of blasphemies and insults hurled at America post 9/11. In response, a bunch of American fundamentalists intend – or so it seems – to take Gustav's life. He has been in hiding, evading the Fatwa.
You wouldn't think it to feel the bravura gust of his entrance into the festival's celebrations (one of Adair's several tours de force); for it seems that Slavorigin knows in person or by repute all the lesser lights, especially Adair – the pair were students together in Edinburgh during the freewheeling 1960s.
The novel's surprise is that nothing shocking (or surprising) occurs until two-thirds through the book, when Slavorigin dies – he is discovered with an arrow through his heart on the floor of the Sherlock Holmes Museum. Adair contrives to cast suspicion in several directions – observing the rule that the most likely suspect is, of course, not the guilty party. Therefore, whodunit?
As someone once said, it is better to travel than to arrive, and the business of reaching the story's conclusion – Evadne rivalling Adair in the race to the truth – is by far the book's most fetching aspect. As never before, Adair goes overboard with literary allusions, self-derision, pastiche and high fantasy, and a melodramatic endgame. He has Slavorigin describe his work in progress (a hall of mirrors, it transpires) and devotes a lovely page to plagiarism, half-jocular, half-true.
There are so many pleasures that it doesn't matter who skewered the corpse – unless you're Evadne, whose incarnation seems to transmogrify from her "real" to fictional self as the story proceeds. Or perhaps it is Gilbert Adair himself who is slipping away, becoming other. He has a history of cunning (The Holy Innocents, for instance, loses its title and gains another in Adair's long list of credits – echoing Christie's Ten Little Indians). And Then There Was No One is, thus far, Adair's funniest and perhaps most slippery novel. No-one in it (as in life!) seems fully bad, nor, for that matter, wholly innocent.