Killingly funny

<strong>And Then There Was No One

</strong>Gilbert Adair

<em>Faber & Faber, 272pp, £14.99</em>

Fiction

Recently, an acquaintance was telling me about her enthusiasm for history, and said that she would love to be able to go back in time to meet some of the great figures of the past. Whom did she have in mind, I asked. Sherlock Holmes, she said. I changed the subject.

Holmes is one example - perhaps the best - of the way some fictional characters slip beyond the grasp of their creator and forge an existence in the real world. In the case of Holmes and Conan Doyle, the relationship between creator and created became even more fraught than usual, with Conan Doyle attempting, in His Last Bow, to kill off his detective before being forced by public outcry to resurrect him. That attempted murder is the starting point for And Then There Was No One, the third of Gilbert Adair's novels to feature the lady detective writer, and amateur detective, Evadne Mount.

Mount (Evie, as her friends call her) made her first appearance in The Act of Roger Murgatroyd, a mystery story in the manner of Agatha Christie, with all the familiar apparatus (snowbound country house, corpse in locked room, multiple motives, stereotypically diverse bunch of suspects, dogged but dull Scotland Yard man), but enlivened with comic touches and flashes of unexpected sexual knowingness. The novel was widely praised as a brilliant and affectionate satire of Christie, though I'm not sure about the affection: coming from an author noted for his feline fastidiousness, this dog's dinner of mangled syntax and Moulinexed metaphors looked very much like a display of contempt; reading it felt at times like sitting through a concert of fingernails being scraped down a blackboard. The sequel, A Mysterious Affair of Style, about a murder at a film studio, was better - less effortful, with funnier gags and some lovely critical shafts, on the art of Hitchcock as well as Christie.

In the dedication to A Mysterious Affair of Style - addressed to Walter Donohue, his editor at Faber - Adair noted how he has made it a point of honour never to repeat himself: he justified this second outing for Evie on the grounds that it was the first time he had ever written a sequel. That should serve as a warning to fans of the earlier books: third time around, Adair is offering not a spoof of Agatha Christie, affectionate or not, but an extravagantly self-conscious, self-referential piece of jouissance.

At the start, the narrator, "Gilbert Adair", is invited to attend a Sherlock Holmes conference in Meiringen, Switzerland - the town nearest to the Reichenbach Falls, scene of the fatal (but, as it turned out, inconclusive) fight between Holmes and Moriarty. Adair is to read from a volume of stories he has written, which flesh out adventures mentioned in passing by Dr Watson - such as the case of the giant rat of Sumatra, "a story for which the world is not yet prepared". During the Q&A session after his reading, Adair is taken aback to be grilled by Evadne Mount, a character he created. Once more, a fictional detective is getting out of control. Oh dear, the reader thinks: Gilbert is getting postmodern on my ass.

Briefly Adair cools things down, restoring some sense of security about where the boundaries between narratives lie. Evadne Mount is, he claims, a real person, a forgotten elderly novelist from whom Adair, in return for a small consideration, borrowed the name and some pertinent characteristics. But soon the boundaries start to go all fuzzy again: real Evie seems to have absorbed some of the mannerisms of fictional Evie. She even speaks of characters invented by Adair as if they were real people; and when others come into her orbit, they become stereotypes of themselves: an Irishman starts saying "Begorrah", a perfectly uncamp gay man goes all swishy and bitchy, a Frenchman who moments earlier spoke perfect if accented English talks like a cartoon onion-seller, mais non?

What follows is . . . well, even here, the decencies of the whodunnit apply: I can't give away the plot. In general terms, then, it is a riot of cleverness and clever-cleverness, simultaneously delirious and irritating, at times infectiously funny - the closest thing to chickenpox you will find between hard covers. I wasn't sure at the end whether I wanted to worship Adair or kick him. But there is this to be said unambiguously in favour of And Then There Was No One: after two admirable attempts to play at being Christie, Adair is at last playing at being himself.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: What the world expects...