THE ACT OF ROGER MURGATROYD – Gilbert Adair (2006)

Set in 1936, at Christmas, in a snow-bound country house near Dartmoor THE ACT OF ROGER MURGATROYD opens soon after the discovery of the dead body of Raymond Gentry, gossip columnist and generally obnoxious human being, in a ‘locked-room’. Among the house-party, and therefore suspects, are the hosts
Colonel and Mrs ffolkes, their daughter Selina and her love-sick American
admirer, their estate manager, the local doctor and his wife, the local
vicar and his wife, actress Cora Rutherford and detective story writer
Evadne Mount. It is the latter who points out that one of them must have
done it and gets them to summon Trubshawe a retired policeman who
conveniently lives nearby. Trubshawe proceeds to conduct his laborious
investigation aided and abetted in her own idiosyncratic way by Evadne,
until a further attempted murder leads her to see the light, assemble the
suspects and unmask the killer.

Now although this description sounds as if Adair is writing a pastiche such
is not in fact the case; we are not in James Anderson territory here. This
is not to say that the book is wholly serious either. But it is certainly
not pastiche. It might best be described as an imitation (of the Golden Age)
with commentary. The vehicle for this commentary is of course Evadne who not only describes the plots of various of her own books at some length, but
also makes various disquisitions on plots and her rivals. For instance she
says that she never writes locked-room mysteries because John Dickson Carr has the sub-genre entirely mastered so it would be useless to try and
emulate him. Now of course this is a sense a self-referential, post-modern
joke in that Adair is writing a locked-room mystery but it is also a comment
on the genre.

The book as a whole is fundamentally a serious attempt to write a Golden Age mystery. I do not mean by this that there is not comedy of both a
traditional and post-modern forms present (the best joke of all is a
paratextual one which I certainly will not reveal). But at its heart this is
a Golden Age mystery, set in the Golden Age. Of course it revels in the play
and games which were indeed present in Golden Age writing. But it is not
fundamentally a comedy, whether pastiche or not, in the way that Anderson’s work, to take the most widely-known example, is.

The problem with this of course is that the book then has to be judged on
the strength or otherwise of its plot. And while Adair has certainly not
failed spectacularly in this respect one would have to say that he has
certainly not succeeded triumphantly either. The ‘solution’ to the
locked-room method has a certain comic absurdity, but the revelation of the murderer produces no great gasp of surprise, nor does his logic or method.

This is not to say that THE ACT OF ROGER MURGATROYD is not an enjoyable read. It is very well-written and a thoroughly pleasant read. What in the end it tells us about the great Golden Age writers however is ultimately in terms of its various deficiencies in comparison to Christie and Carr, Marsh and Sayers, Allingham and Innes and so on. In each case the deficiencies would be slightly different but they would be there. The Golden Age, whatever its’ defects, is so-called for a reason and both imitation and
pastiche inevitably call attention to those reasons.

(March 2009)