Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Death of a Mystery Writer

For her readers who cherish every quirky aspect of the classic British mystery (and if you're reading this column, surely that means you), may Miss Lemon recommend Robert Barnard's delightful Death of a Mystery Writer (1978).

The novel has everything, from a cold-blooded poisoning in the polite village of Wycherley to a gaggle of disappointed heirs and a Welsh detective who's just far enough left of the mainstream to stir up the long (long) list of suspects into an amusing set to.

Few and far between are the people who know best-selling mystery writer Sir Oliver Fairleigh-Stubbs and would not like to see him dead. As insufferable as the Welsh detective he creates, Sir Oliver likes nothing better than to get the better of his inferiors. Whether he's insulting his neighbour's wine or making his children grovel for favour, Sir Oliver Fairleigh-Stubbs finds no shortage of enemies.

Worse, his novels aren't even good. Sir Oliver knows little about crime or its detection, and he has never once met a Welsh person.

And that's just what makes Death of a Mystery Writer such a deliciously smart satire. Miss Lemon may even go so far as to give it that terribly modern label: meta-mystery. With chapter titles and dramatic twists that allude to the masters, like Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie, the ironies abound.

To wit: when Sir Oliver Fairleigh-Stubbs at long last drinks a deadly draught of nicotine-tainted Lakka, a Welsh detective is called in to investigate. The murder, more than one of the suspects remarks, could have been taken directly from the pages of one of Sir Oliver's novels.

Pardon Miss Lemon for mentioning the she even sees shades of herself in Sir Oliver's unflappable literary secretary, Miss Cozzens. Inspector Meredith notes that "the brief glimpse that he had had of her ... suggested to him that here was a woman with no nonsense about her.... On the surface she looked like a shorthand taking machine, and a totally conventional moral entity -- but behind the glasses savage little glints of intelligence were to be detected."

Readers should be not at all surprised at the level of complexity and cleverness they'll find in Death of a Mystery Writer. Robert Barnard names Agatha Christie as one of his favourite mystery writers, and her presence is felt keenly here and in other works. Mr. Barnard wrote an appreciation of Mrs. Christie in 1980 called A Talent to Deceive. It is now on Miss Lemon's to-read pile.

1 comment:

  1. Remember that time, in the operations center? That we discussed the finer points of Frog and Toad eating cookies after the team had gone home? That was a lively discussion. Glad you are still on the interwebs.