For a book set against the backdrop of a play based on one of Agatha Christie’s most famous works, and featuring a detective the front flap tells us is “unparalleled even by Hercule Poirot”, there’s more than a passing whiff of Ngaio Marsh about this one.
It’s not just the theatrical setting which encourages the Marsh comparison, but also the fact that far and away the most interesting section of the book occurs in the run-up to the crime. Because once the murder is out of the way, yeesh, doesn’t this ever drag; no mean feat for a C-format hardcover of a mere 200 pages (and, good heavens, what incredible pages — I kept thinking I was turning over three at once, it’s like Egyptian cotton cross-bred with oatcakes). Then the ending does its very best to revive things — offering three distinct solutions, no less, though that proves to be something of a problem itself — before it wraps up with possibly the oddest final flourish I may have ever encountered. It’s not original in the least — I could name five GAD novels off the top of my head that do the exact same thing — but it sure thinks it is, and seems to be under the impression it’s being very daring when, honestly, you’ve seen everything here before. Everything.
Published in the U.K. as The Eleventh Little Nigger and in the U.S. as The Eleventh Little Indian, this was the first novel written by the playwright partnership of Yves Jacquemard and Jean-Michel Senecal, though according again to the rear flap biography here apparently considered “too daring” for the prestigious Prix des Quai de Orfèvres — given annually to an unpublished French novel of policing — and so they wrote and published another novel first, Le Crime de la Maison Grün (1977) — published in English as The Body Disappears (tr. Latta 1980) — which went on to win the award in its place. Given how convention-baiting so much of the small amount of French detective fiction I’ve read is — the mid-point stop-then-restart of The House That Kills (1932) by Noel Vindry, the murky morality of Boileau-Narcejac’s She Who Was No More (1952) — you wonder how divorced the form had become from those roots for this to be considered daring or shocking or even especially notable. Like, it’s fine, and manages to wrangle a wonderful opening quarter, but once the investigations start, and especially where they go…is anyone going to be even mildly put out by that? Really?
You’ve not been paying attention, have you?
We start at the Theatre Gerard in Paris, where the enfant terrible of French theatre, US-Greek immigrant Alex Stefanopoulos, is staging his production of what we’ll call And Then There Were None semi-reframed in the trappings of a Greek tragedy. You need to be au fait with the solution of Christie’s novel, by the way, since you’re told who the killer in that story is quite early on here, but that seems a fair assumption given the title and subject matter. Through the eyes of Paul Samson, bestowed with the rôle of the killer in the play, we are guided through the various personages involved quite distinctly (it’s a little head-spinny, because everyone has a name of their own as well as a character they’re playing in the play) and then settle back for a few weeks of Standard Puzzle Plot fare: a casual mention of a will, an overheard argument between lovers, the imbrications of the previous encounters or long-held grudges starting to spill out in conversations, and the mysterious hint that at least a couple of those involved here have some skeletons they’d rather not see daylight. I can find no especially stand-out prose, but Gordon Latta’s translation is brisk and easy on the brain, and the steady accumulation of potential clues is a lot of fun. A lot of fiction in this idiom from this time has aged poorly, but if anything this narrative benefits from amplifying its apparent senescence and pitching itself as far back as it can get away with. We could easily be three decades earlier than we find ourselves, for all the shock people display at unmarried couples living together, or the implications of the evils of drug use; it’s a strong start, and I had high hopes.
Then we get to the murder — some reviews I’ve read tell you who is murdered, but I’d recommend not knowing, since it will spoil that anticipatory tingle of those opening rounds — the discovery of which is wonderful, and capped with a moment of surprise that would it perfectly alongside the works of Christianna Brand or Ellery Queen (it’s not a very Christie-an conceit, I’d argue)…and so the retrospective analysis of what was portend and what was pretence begins. And, man, do things screech to a halt.
The fulcrum of this narrative volte-face is Superintendent Hector Parescot, (did, uh, any of you notice his initials, eh?) deployed to solve the crime, and swiftly engaging in the sort of tedious searches, pointless interviews, and agonising timetabling that actually is as bad as Freeman Wills Crofts is made out to be. Worst of all, you know all this is pointless because of the way the narrative keeps trying to force a suspect on you with the sort of subtlety that could only be worsened by secondary character putting on a sandwich board bearing the legend “Well, so-and-so isn’t being at all suspicious, ARE THEY?!?!!”. Case in point, late on — by which time you’ll’ve figure out how guilty they’re not — they’re invited along by Parescot to meet a witness but cry off because they have “some jobs to do”. Cue the next chapter, in which the witness has been murdered! Good heavens, clearly those “things” could have been murder this dude, right? This is how clewing works, right?
The difficulties are two-fold because in order to make them suspicious certain other actions must be performed or offered which make no sense. At one point, the murderer (supposedly still unknown to us as ‘the murderer’) invites the object of suspicion to spend some time with them — an offer which is turned down, meaning the two are separated at the time of another murder. Given that the murderer would have had to commit that murder at that time — and would know this when extending the invite — what was their plan if the other person had agreed to stay with them? “Oh, er, just stay here for an hour or so, Karen, I’m popping out for some…shopping. Yes. I’m buying some red paint. And I’m terribly clumsy so may come back with some of it spilled on me”. I’d say this has a huge amount in common with The Beast Must Die (1938) from Thursday; the opening section is superb and promises great things, and then what follows manages to undo that — though, in fairness to Nicholas Blake, his plot is far the more interesting. This feels something between a fan letter and an homage…neither of which, alas, is a good basis for a compelling detective story.
“Immigration is the highest form of battery.”
And then we come to the end. Ings. In the manner of, say, Anthony Berkeley’s Not to be Taken, a.k.a. A Puzzle in Poison (1938), two people sit down to discuss the murders and each outlines a pretty water-tight case against the other, and then both simply agree that neither of those solutions are correct. After bending their narrative into all manner of shapes, and throwing in extra visits and realisations and implications that make it fit — and, staggeringly, having this surmise confirmed by their opposite number — and jumping through hoops to tie it all in a neat bow (I can’t deny that these solutions have compelling aspects to them) they just…shrug and go, “Yeah, nah, okay, must be someone else”. And it is. And there’s no proof against that person either. And then…a decision of quite monumental stupidity is made for possibly he most monumentally stupid reason going, and then it finally ends.
I can only think that this ending is the thing that proved so challenging to the publishers vis-à-vis the Prix des Quai de Orfèvres, but…this is not new, nor is it terribly shocking. It’s mainly just lazily justified, and strikes a deeply false note. Worst of all, you can see a lot of people who didn’t know GAD being blown away at the way these two had found a new wrinkle that those fusty old, rule-bound, decrepit, out-of-touch old timers would never have considered. But I don’t think, in fairness, that it’s even trying to claim it’s a new thing, and so the response to this from anyone who has adopted an even slightly catholic approach to GAD is going to be surely just a little muted because they’ve read the earlier, superior works on which it is built. And they sort of feel like the intended audience. So the people you wrote this for are going to be the ones least impressed by it — something feels very jumbled here (and, of course, I could be wrong…); surely the point of adopted the GAD model is to outdo it so we can revel in the additional creativity a new perspective brings. Simply (ahem) retreading those boards in a slightly less successful manner is mere off-season panto when we were promised (or led to expect) Shakespearean bombast.
Ho-hum. Those of us who know, know that we don’t have to look too hard to find something better than this; it is to be hoped that those who didn’t know before picking this up took the opportunity to discover the fact for themselves.
The back cover is quite cool, though.
John @ Pretty Sinister: The entire novel is a whirlwind of retro mystery novel plotting and detection. In true Golden Age tradition it also has a map, a timetable, and an alibi chart to help illustrate the complexities of the story. A forgotten crime in the past, a typical Christie device, resurfaces to serve as a potential motive for the mass slaughter of actors and actresses. Hovering in the background is the figure of a dead actress – Edith Terray – who keeps coming up in conversation and eventually becomes the link connecting all the characters in the story. Intricately layered with dozens of surprise revelations this is quite an entertaining romp. I enjoyed it so much I am already in search of the only other Jacquemard-Sénécal novel translated into English. If I was better at French than my few rudimentary cafe and Metro phrases I’d read all the rest of their books as well.
Patrick @ At the Scene of the Crime: Overall, I loved The Eleventh Little Indian and I would recommend it unreservedly to admirers of Agatha Christie. It’s a loving homage, a cracking good mystery, and a wonderful dip into the world of theatre. It’s a small gem that is definitely worth seeking out!