There’s self-conscious and parody, then there’s this! And Gilbert Adair's Then There Was No One uses some reasonably familiar tropes to create a detective story with a difference: the novelist meeting the detective he has created, fictional detectives coming alive, corny fictional endings from fiction coming alive (in another piece of fiction). Adair uses his own real novels as fictional constructs, and the line between fiction and fact becomes incomprehensibly fractured. Personally, I found it all too mannered, although often amusing, and would find any more of this style really quite fatiguing. (My views may be influenced by having read, unwittingly, the third novel of a trilogy first). But to a true aficionado of the genre – and I confess myself one – there is a real pleasure in spotting the references, meeting heroes old and new and seeing the ending becoming clearer and clearer – but always being wrong. Also, for me a winning point, the fictional hero, Gilbert Adair (and presumably his creator, the genuine Gilbert Adair) has a healthy contempt for Agatha Christie.
The book is set in Switzerland, where a Sherlock Holmes literary convention has been established in a town near the Reichenbach Falls. A mystery guest arrives, and turns out to be a novelist who has been hiding from threatened assassination (not from Islamic extremists, but from the rich far right in America) following outrageous public comments on the Twin Towers disaster. He is murdered, and his killer is only unmasked after a baffling and surreal series of false trails and a liberal sprinkling of literary clever-cleverness. A pleasure for Holmes fans is that Adair has reconstructed some of the “missing” stories, and he reads to the conference, and to us, a story called The Giant Rat of Sumatra, which, somewhere in the Holmes canon is referred to as “a story for which the world is not yet prepared”. Here it is – and quite fun it is, too.