For anyone who enjoys parody and pastiche – as I do – the crime genre offers rich pickings. There’s a lot of fun to be had in the work of a couple of modern writers who pay homage to the traditional form, whilst adding their own distinctive flavour to it. L.C.Tyler’s The Herring in the Library and Gilbert Adair’s The Mysterious Affair of Style are good examples of how pastiches can be enjoyable mysteries in their own right.
Tyler and Adair doff their caps to Dame Agatha, but mystery parodies and pastiches go back to the nineteenth century, and the countless riffs on Sherlockian themes. Some of them were quite dreadful (characters with names like Holmlock Shears, and variants thereof, demand very good stories if they are not to pall rapidly) but some were excellent. Ronald Knox, the man who devised, tongue-in-cheek, ‘The Detective Decalogue’, ten commandments for detective story writers, also wrote splendid Holmesian pastiches. And to this day, there is a continuing demand in many quarters for stories in the much-imitated yet inimitable style of Conan Doyle. I’ve been responsible for several myself, starting with ‘The Case of the Suicidal Lawyer’ for an anthology of modern Holmes stories edited by Mike Ashley, more than a decade ago. And I’ve just completed another, ‘The Case of the Musical Butler’.
In between the two world wars, a good many crime parodies were written. E.C. Bentley spoofed his friend Dorothy L. Sayers, in ‘Greedy Night’, while Anthony Berkeley teased James M. Cain with the title of ‘The Policeman Only Taps Once’. One of the most interesting novel-length parodies (which again takes its title from Gaudy Night) is Gory Knight, by Margaret Rivers Larminie and Jane Langslow. This involves a combined sleuthing effort by thinly disguised versions of Poirot, Wimsey, Dr Priestley and Inspector French. The story isn’t strongly plotted, but the book remains a rather pleasing curiosity. Murder in Pastiche Or Nine Detectives All at Sea by Marion Mainwaring went further a couple of decades later, with no fewer than nine spoof sleuths: Atlas Poireau (Hercule Poirot), Trajan Beare (Nero Wolfe), Spike Bludgeon (Mike Hammer), Sir John Nappleby (Sir John Appleby), Jerry Pason (Perry Mason), Lord Simon Quinsey (Lord Peter Wimsey), Miss Fan Sliver (Maud Silver) and Broderick Tournier (Roderick Alleyn). Among modern writers, Jon L. Breen is arguably the most gifted parodist, but my favourite short story parody was written by E.V. Knox, brother of Ronald. ‘The Murder at the Towers’ really is very funny.
At novel length, my favourite pastiche (though really, the novel defies labelling) is a book that the late Julian Symons described as ‘the detective story to end detective stories’: The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor, by Cameron McCabe, which dates back to 1937. A taut story, narrated by McCabe, the ‘chief cutter’, grows rapidly in complexity following the discovery of an aspiring actress’s body on a film studio’s cutting room floor, is followed by a lengthy epilogue in which one of the characters, A.B.C. Muller, apologises for his ‘unwarranted intrusion into Mr McCabe’s story’ and proceeds to dissect it, with the assistance of quotations from various contemporary reviews of and statements about fiction – including detective fiction – by a range of critics. The quotations are cleverly adapted so as to refer to McCabe’s narrative. ‘Cameron McCabe’ was in fact a German called Ernst Bornemann, who fled to the UK to escape the Nazis and wrote the book as a way of improving his English. He went on to have a notable and very varied career which encompassed both working for Orson Welles and becoming a famous sexologist, but what strikes me as truly incredible is that when he wrote The Face he was only nineteen years old. A fact I find stranger even than this very strange piece of fiction. If you haven’t read it, do give it a try.
(This article first appeared at www.bookdagger.com)