Novel of the week

A Closed Book

Gilbert Adair <em>Faber & Faber, 258pp, £9.99</em>

ISBN 0571200818

"A Closed Book! Just think of it. Who, now who, browsing in Waterstone's and catching sight of that title, could ever resist opening it?" asks the reclusive, blind Sir Paul about the proposed title of his autobiography, which "is going to be very much about blindness, both literal and figurative".

This novel, tipping its hat to Hitchcock's Rope and recalling in places Stephen King's Misery, comprises largely a dialogue between two people living in the same house: Sir Paul (we never learn his last name, except that it is "very similar" to "Ryder") and his amanuensis, the pseudonymous John Ryder. There is a walk-on part for the Scots housekeeper from Central Casting: "Missus" Kilbride of the "plump, motherly voice". But until two policemen arrive to investigate Sir Paul's death, trapped inside his wardrobe, the only other person we meet is a canvasser from the local Conservative association.

After Mrs Kilbride disappears to nurse her sick husband, Sir Paul is alone with Ryder. The safety of his house is no more. Once he knew where everything was, but now he trips over a book Ryder leaves at the top of the stairs and nearly has a fatal fall. Then Ryder tells Sir Paul he is wearing a striped tie he knows he doesn't own. As the days pass, Sir Paul, who has no radio or television, is informed that a statue of Princess Diana holding an African baby is to be erected on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square; that Pete Townshend of the Who has been assassinated outside the Groucho Club. Ryder's most bizarre news bulletin is that Robin Cook is now prime minister (or, as Sir Paul mistakenly and hilariously tells the canvasser, Roger Cook) after Tony Blair had to resign with Aids. Adair conveys well Sir Paul's creeping doubts. Why, he has even introduced some of these "facts" into his book. But what if they're not true, and how can he find out before his reputation is destroyed?

Adair has a good ear for sniping and peevishness, especially between master and servant. But the many pages taken up with Sir Paul's dictation, and the reading back of the authorial changes, can be tedious, as both the book and the book-within-the-book are consumed simultaneously - and more than once.

The scene where we and Sir Paul finally learn who "Ryder" is - and why he is exacting this terrible retribution - is shocking. But the clues have been there all along. In another Adair flourish, before deciding on the title A Closed Book, Sir Paul had toyed with Truth and Consequences and The Death of the Reader ("I trust you get the pun"), but had decided against.

As an exercise in the evocation of claustrophobia and terror, it is excellent; but one is left to imagine how Hitchcock would turn Sir Paul's growing fear - that he has been figuratively blinded through hiring the mysterious Ryder to be his eyes - into a genuine chiller. As in all Adair's novels, you feel he thinks more of design and arrangement, of sending signs to members of an insider audience (and often the same signs), than he does of entertaining the reader. For example, Sir Paul wittily appropriates the military term "air space" in his advice on the etiquette of disability: "One should not sit on an amputee's bed . . . where his leg would normally be, one should not violate the air space of his missing arm, etc."

I would have enjoyed this even more had not Adair also used the same crack about air space in his previous novel, The Key of the Tower. As Adair has Sir Paul remark: "I have to tell you that we writers are the most environmentally friendly creatures you could ever imagine. We're constantly looking for ways of recycling our work." When Ryder wonders if this isn't "cheating the public", Sir Paul bristles with contempt: "The public? . . . What do they know?"

And so Gilbert Adair ensures that his readership will never equal that of Agatha Christie, who, the book jacket informs us, would be "envious" of his 11th-hour twist.

This article first appeared in the 25 October 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Why the old left is wrong on equality