At this time of year, I find myself compiling long lists of aspirational reading (and the odd self-help book). I have twenty books on my list and another three I have started and put down. The recurring fear that I have permanently damaged my capacity to read by spending too much time on screens arises again. Was it only a few years ago when January was my month for reading a book a day? Perhaps it has something to do with the arrival of a highly entertaining grandson into our lives, so we spend more time playing, or perhaps it is the book fatigue that comes after a life spent lost in a book.
It won’t take the astute reader long to work out that this preamble is my excuse for reading a rather bad book. An Agatha Christie homage, or should I say pastiche? The author, Gilbert Adair said he read the sixty-six Christie novels in preparation for writing this, the sixty-seventh. I felt I was in safe hands with Adair, an essayist, novelist, screenplay writer and French scholar whose great achievement was the translation of Georges Perec’s La Disparition (an Oulipoean work written without the letter e) as A Void (also without the letter e). That was my excuse for revisiting the comfort reading of small novels that had seen me through my midwifery training with one book a day read in my break.
The title of The Act of Roger Murgatroyd is a play on the title of one of Christie’s most famous novels The Murder of Roger Ackroyd where, as everyone in the world knows, the narrator turns out to be the murderer. The narrator is for most of this book an omniscient third person voice and only at the end does the murderer give their reasons in first person. There is no lead up to the crime, as in a Christie novel, where someone would be traveling to the site of the murder. Here the first line is uttered by a colonel
Sort of thing you can’t imagine happening outside a book.
And then the key character, the Miss Marple revamp, Evadne Mount, who is an author, a lesbian, whose unpublished book is an homage to The Well of Loneliness, The Urinal of Futility, and whose published books have titles like The Mystery of the Green Penguin and Faber or Faber (which identical twin brother has killed the other?) begins to argue with him as to whether he had ever read her books.
Because it is Christmas, and of course the house is snowed in, it is not possible to send for the police. All the phone lines are down. Then someone remembers a retired detective from Scotland Yard living a few miles away and a group of men drive through the snow drifts to collect Chief Inspector Trubshaw and his dog Tobermory.
The corpse was that of a Raymond Gentry, a gossip columnist and thoroughly nasty fellow who has been found in the attic, shot through the heart. There is of course a locked door and a barred window. On their way up to the attic to inspect the corpse they go through the main hall.
On its walls the Colonel had mounted the stuffed heads of every imaginable wild beast, from a magnificently antlered Highland stag and an enormous grey elephant from the Indian hill country to a hybrid flock of smaller and friskier creatures, all of them mementos of his travels in happier time.
And here is the corpse
…the sight of Raymond Gentry transfixed everyone’s attention. Wearing the arresting combination of jet-black silk pyjamas and a bathrobe of fluffy white towelling fabric, he lay stretched across the floor, his sickly, effeminate features warped out of shape by a grimace of indescribable horror.
And I won’t go down to the servant’s hall to show the moronic servants.
The story is pedestrian, consisting of question and answer, the method by which the murderer commits the crime is ludicrous. And then there is the slaughter of animals, the jibes at different classes, the anti-semitism and racism and so on.
Some reviewers have found this book a bit dull, but I think it is Adair putting a magnifying glass onto the worst aspects of Agatha Christie. I am sure he has done it deliberately. At some points the writing was so bad I burst out laughing.
On the threshold, wrapped in her dressing-gown, the quintessence of one of those dotty, indomitable Home Counties matrons who are as irreplaceable a feature of the soft and undulating English landscape as Bedouin tribeswomen are of the no less soft and undulating Sahara Desert, stood Evadne Mount.
But still, it all has the tone of an Agatha Christie.
I don’t think I can go on to read the other books in this series; A Mysterious Affair of Style and And Then There Was No One.
I must do better.