When crime is a guilty pleasure

The Act Of Roger Murgatroyd: An Entertainment

Gilbert Adair

Faber and Faber, 12.99

CRIME writing has become a rather nasty business. Whether it's hard-boiled, tartan noir, gritty police procedural or gangster operas, you can barely move in any bookshop's crime section without stumbling over alcoholic psychopaths (both in and out of the police force), lurid serial killers, broken minds, noses and marriages and a general lack of manners all round.

Whether it's Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta dissecting corpses with as much relish as the murderer who dispatched the victim, or the shock-horror mundanity of Christopher Brookmyre's grand-guignol capers, or the interminable, soul-destroying struggle at Ed McBain's 87th Precinct, these are novels that rub the reader's nose in the blood, sweat, stink and various other bodily fluids associated with murder.

This isn't to say that there aren't fine writers working within this genre. I'm fond of Lawrence Block, author of, among others, A Ticket To The Boneyard and The Burglar Who Thought He Was Bogart. Fred Vargas writes elegantly plotted, properly haunting novels where the crimes tap into urban myths and local legends. I can easily devour a Reginald Hill novel, if I have a sufficiently bad cold.

But the sheer preponderance of this form is worth consideration. Nearly a third of the Festival of Scottish Writing, held in Edinburgh's libraries last May, was devoted to modern crime writing. Many crime writers regularly girn that they aren't taken as seriously as supposedly 'literary' fiction, although I've never bought the specious argument that Dostoevsky's Crime And Punishment, or even Hamlet, are 'crime' writing. One might as well call Jane Eyre chick-lit or put All Quiet On The Western Front on a par with Sven Hassel. And it is also true that some crime writers transcend their genre appeal.

WHAT SEEMS more interesting than hair-splitting debates over what is and is not crime writing is the fascination, at the moment, with the blood-and-guts, in-your-face forms it takes. If the bestseller charts are anything to go by, readers lap up the slick, explicit, "this isn't some kind of parlour game" fictions. Which makes me yearn all the more for the Golden Age of Crime, and which makes Gilbert Adair's adorable novel, The Act Of Roger Murgatroyd, such a perfect tonic.

It is possible, nowadays, to enjoy the Golden Age writers - Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy Sayers et al - with a kind of camp twist. Rex Stout is a perfect example. The detective, Nero Wolfe, is massively obese, inexplicably rich, rarely leaves his brownstone apartment and employs a French chef and orchid gardener. There's a wonderful one called Too Many Cooks, where Nero actually does leave the apartment to take part in a gourmet competition: the same dish is made 13 times, with 12 of them omitting one of the 13 necessary herbs. Of course, someone ends up poisoned. It is - and this is the joy - preposterous and unbelievable.

Adair's novel is in a similar vein, but it is deliberately tongue-in-cheek, not beached as kitsch with the changing tides of fashion. In a snowed-in manor house, on Boxing Day, in the 1930s, one guest - the despicable gossip columnist for the Trombone, Raymond Gentry - is found dead. He has been shot. In an attic room, locked from the inside, with iron bars on the only window, and with no gun, or murderer, in evidence.

The rest of the cast is gloriously predictable. The manor is the property of Colonel and Mrs ffolkes, who have invited the local vicar and doctor (and their wives), the actress Cora Rutherford, their daughter Selina ffolkes and her American beaux Don (who is smarting from Selina's offer to Raymond to accompany them) and the detective novelist Evadne Mount to spend Christmas with them. Evadne announces that the murderer must be one of them - without the servants being in the room, naturally. So it is agreed to cross the snowdrifts and bring retired Inspector Trubshawe of the Yard to cross-examine the guests.

Whodunnit? How was it done? Why? Don't expect me to reveal that: suffice to say it is both ludicrously obvious and a complete surprise. Enough skeletons are let out of closets to fill an ossuary (and some characters have to come out of the closet themselves) and there are more red herrings than you would expect to find in a Communist fishmongers.

The title nods at Christie's debut, The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd, and readers familiar with that book will have a head start, especially since Christie broke one of the perceived cast-iron rules of the genre. Adair has fun with this: the servants, speculating on the possible murderer, run through classic Christie plots. Evadne refers to her own novels (I would love to read the one about the identical twins, one of whom murders the other but then refuses to say which he is) and gripes about locked-room mysteries being the province of her rival Dickson Carr (who did pioneer the genre).

In an important way, this is not a novel to be shelved in the crime section. Adair is an acclaimed translator, who achieved the task of rendering Georges Perec's La Disparition - a novel written without using the letter 'e' - into English, maintaining the lipogrammatic stricture (he called it, for example, A Void, not The Disappearance). He has previously written a hilarious satire on literary theory and murder, The Death Of The Author, and his last novel, The Dreamers, was made into a film by Bernardo Bertolucci. He's a literary trickster, and I won't spoil the little games, tipped winks and puzzle-fun any more than I would identify the murderer.

Given its literary bravura encourages readers to attempt decoding all its recondite erudition, The Act Of Roger Murgatroyd might be thought inaccessible, or even arch. It's not. Like the duck-rabbit optical illusion, you can read this as a period yarn, switch eye, and see it as a clever post-modern tribute. It's full of "stinkeroony", "darnedest" and "ninny". Unlike so many genre titles, it's a bally hoot.

But to end on a serious note: why are most of our modern crime writers so unremittingly grimy? In a way, there is an element of wish fulfilment going on. The genre crime novel still adheres to a fundamental principle, unchanged since Aristotle. The villain gets caught. Things are solved. If the crime novel truly reflected or even exaggerated the world we live in, two-thirds of them would end with "case abandoned", "insufficient evidence", or never even reach the ears of the police. More rapists and murderers are caught in fiction than reality. There is a sense in which the genre colludes: make the world as grimy and 'real' as you can, then pretend that justice prevails. Adair at least is clear that this is just an entertainment.