|Cover design by Romek Marber|
Murder in Pastiche describes the chance gathering of nine literary detectives aboard a transatlantic cruise: Atlas Poireau, Mallory King, Jon Nappelby, Jerry Pason, Lord Simon Quinsey, Trajan Beare, Spike Bludgeon, Fan Silver and Broderick Tourneur — the names will be somewhat familiar to anyone acquainted with Golden Age crime fiction — discover that they are to be fellow passengers on R.M.S. Florabunda's journey from Dock 4-b in Liverpool to Ruggarty Pier in New York.
And with so many detectives gathered together it is clear that this will be the perfect crossing for a murder, and aboard is a passenger who seems the perfect candidate for murder victim. Lord Simon Quinsey describes Paul Price as 'a character in search of a murderer', and it is clear that he has been created by Mainwaring with his end in mind.
The few details we learn about Paul Pry, as he is known behind his back, suggest him to be amoral, avaricious and self-concerned, and entirely unworthy of any reader's concern: he works as a gossip columnist for a mainstream U.S. newspaper and he takes advantage of his position to indulge a lucrative sideline which has him charging both to publish positive reviews and to not publish negative ones. His journey to Europe was undertaken solely to curtail his niece's fledgling romance.
He doesn't survive his first night aboard ship. His corpse, adorned with the requisite perplexing props: a pipe and a red and yellow striped scarf, is found crammed tightly into a corner on the deck next morning, with injuries which suggest he has been struck on the head. Everything indicates that he has been murdered.
A number of the literary detectives note that a ship at sea is not unlike a weekend party at an English county home, at least when considered as a venue for a murder — they share an isolated location, a constrained set of suspects, and several temporary residents living with an uneasy awareness that the person who committed the murder is one of themselves and remains amongst them. But the cast of characters aboard this ship is very unlike any typical set of weekend visitors to a hypothetical country home, for they are an ill-assorted lot seemingly sampled from the various genres of crime fiction. They include the femme fatale Dolores Despana who is keen to make it big in America and who regrets the murder because it interferes with her plan to have Price publish a glowing review of her work, the stuffy dowager Mrs Chip-Ebberly who looks down upon anyone who is not of the aristocracy, and a deranged captain who distrusts anyone with an enthusiasm for stepping ashore.
But then the clue to the story and its structure are provided in its title. In the wake of the crime a chapter is devoted to each of the detectives, describing his or her efforts to solve the crime using their own favoured approach, and written in mimicry of the distinctive style of the associated author; detectives and authors are together being parodied. The concept and the execution are both remarkable and there are several delightful moments, but irrespective of how impressively it was done, I found I could only take it in small doses, for I would invariably find myself falling asleep after half an hour's reading.
While it is all delivered tongue-in-cheek, the author illustrates what is a perfectly valid criticism of crime fiction: that there is an element of conditioning involved, with each detective finding exactly what he or she expects to find and so having their particular approach proved each time. Atlas Poireau finds that a partial solution can be found by seeking order where there is chaos, Jon Nappleby finds inspiration in the poetry of Wordsworth and Gray, while Mallory King finds his answers in more-contemporary fiction. Other detectives find themselves constrained by circumstances to act contrary to their favoured approach: so while it is noted that Jerry Pason would prefer to wait until a putative murderer is on trial to present his evidence, there is no court case in the offing. And Trajan Beare will waive his million-dollar fee, if solving the crime will get him back to his Brownstone a little sooner.
But while this aspect is the book's strength, it seems to me that it is also its weakness. Here, the structure of the novel is paramount, and every aspect of the story is subordinate to it, and this means that it never really coheres - the various clues, the cast of characters, and the sequence of events are all convenient, and you are left with the sense that none of it has any meaning apart from facilitating the pastiche. This means that the entertaining aspect is not the story itself but the observations, some of which are stated and some only implied.
And it is because of these observations that the story is delightful in moments, and these moments make it worth reading. I particularly liked the idea of Simon Quinsey deciding that they must all meet in Beare's rooms for the moment of revelation, because he knows the great man will never be enticed to leave them. And I would note that all the moments concerning Beare are well done, because Mainwaring creates, in Ernie Woodbin, a character who seemed to me even more entertaining than his original.
I think the pastiche idea is brilliantly executed, but I also think that a little of it can go a long way.
First published by Victor Gollancz 1955. Published in Penguin Books 1962.