I’ve got five glorious days off from school . . . and I conveniently forgot to bring that set of film papers home to grade! It gives me just the time I need to settle down to a good book. I was going to read and review Anthony Horowitz’ new mystery, The Word Is Murder, but both Kate and JJ beat me to the punch.
That’s not going to stop me from starting it tonight, for it sounds right up my alley – a novel by a modern author who has enough understanding of classic tropes to turn out a fine crime novel in the traditional style. (See The Magpie Murders.)
Americans are just getting around to Magpie, but I paid attention to my British blogging mates and the wonderful people on the GAD Facebook page and ordered my British copy via The Book Depository. When word of Word got out, I followed suit and purchased it months ago. But that darned TBR pile of mine – and a little thing called work – has so far kept it out of my grasp.
Reading JJ’s review made me want to get on with this one all the more, but first I took a little detour, due to a comment in another of JJ’s posts about a book called Ten Dead Comedians, by Fred Van Lente, which seemed to be an homage to Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians. In his comment, our friend John painted the book this way:
“A very American, very vulgar and sometimes clever send-up of AND THEN THERE WERE NONE. Even comes with a floor plan! How retro Golden Age can you get?”
John promised a “review coming soon,” but I found the book in my local library and have beaten him to the punch . . . line! (Ah har har har!) And if you thought that was funny, you’re gonna love this book. As for those of you with taste and discernment . . . well, read on, and see what I think.
I have to warn you that I’ve been known to wax vitriolic over modern novels that are billed as being “just like” Agatha Christie, and, sure enough, the inside jacket blurb calls this one “a darkly clever take on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and other mysteries. I would love to know what “other mysteries” the blurb writer has in mind because this one pretty blatantly rips off one plot and one plot only. Having read it, I think back to John’s description – “very American” – and wonder if I don’t owe my buddy a punch in the kazoo! 🙂
The novel takes place in modern day yet begins fairly promisingly in a traditional mode, jumping from one introduction to another as eight comedians are texted an invitation to join successful comic Dustin Walker on his secluded island estate in order to collaborate on a mysterious new project. Each character conveniently represents a different style of comedy, and together they provide a diverse cross-section of America. There’s the Latino late night talk show host, the Joan Rivers-style insult comic, a black road comic who comes off like Chris Rock with a drinking problem, an Asian lesbian podcaster . . . actually, the variety starts to get a little tiresome.
Once they meet up on the boat to the island, they are greeted by Walker’s assistant, a brand new stand-up comic who happens to be female and black and British and . . . oh dear, there it goes again. She insists that Walker is excited to have them all be his guests. But when they get to the island, there’s nobody in sight: no Dustin, no caretaker named Dave (“Dave’s not here!” Har har har!); instead, it feels like the place has been abandoned for at least a week. More ominously, the food is spoiled, all communications are non-functional . . . and every sharp object is missing.
So, here’s a funny thing: I read the book up through this set-up, put it down to make some lunch, and came back to find that my cat had chewed up the first page. “Sonny! Don’t be a critic!” I cried. I should have heeded his warning . . .
Van Lente clearly wants to invite comparisons to Christie’s classic novel, which strikes me as both a presumptuous and a dangerous thing to do. In the first chapters, he hews closely to Christie’s plot: instead of a record, the comics are treated to a video seemingly made by their missing host, accusing them of “crimes against comedy” and hinting that they will not make it off the island alive. (This is a motive for mass murder?!?) The first killing repeats Christie almost verbatim, as one of the comics is poisoned after raucously toasting his fellow guests. Of course, this being a modern novel, he can’t just die. No, the blood has to spray out of his mouth, dousing the other comics. Most of the subsequent murders follow a similar pattern of being more macabre and more violent than Christie would have ever imagined being. That’s show biz, folks!
I would suggest that being a bad comic is not quite as serious a crime as having killed someone (although writing a bad novel comes closer), but there are bigger problems at work here than the plot. It’s lightweight, but it’s not a terrible plot. There are some twists at the end that you may or may not see coming. (The book may have a floor plan of the estate and other trappings of a classic mystery, but don’t hold your breath that it plays fair with the reader.) Most of the characters are pretty loathsome, so you kind of don’t mind their getting the ax – sometimes literally. The biggest crime is that here we have a houseful of comedians – and nobody is funny. I don’t think Van Lente intends this. He’s clearly working very hard here to delineate, if not characters, then various comic styles. Between every murder, Van Lente even includes a past “set” by one or another of the comics. Sadly, I found these lacking in much real humor (or taste) and therefore eminently skippable. As a result, I may have missed out on a clue or two on the way – I can’t be sure.
Along the way, we’re treated to several bits about tropes in mysteries – mostly, modern mystery and horror films, as in the all too true standard that if a dog or cat appears in a scary movie, it’s doomed. So when a cute little doggie named Asshole shows up in the book . . . well, it’s only a matter of time. That’s my only spoiler, and I do it on behalf of the ASPCA! Besides, the bit’s not funny at all.
Again, my tolerance for this sort of thing is regrettably low, and I have a feeling some of you might find this perfectly entertaining and even clever. As for me, I will continue my search for the perfect modern pastiche of Dame Agatha. It hasn’t come from Sophie Hannah, who has been hired to create “new” Poirot adventures for reasons that elude me. (Not about the writing as that reason is obvious – ka ching, ka ching – but about the choice of writer.) It hasn’t come from Camilla Lackburg, Sweden’s new heir to the Christie mantle, or Ruth Ware, who must be grinning all the way to the bank for unfairly being pinned with the same label. And it sure wasn’t Ten Dead Comedians. I wonder if I should just stop trying . . .
Sonny’s final warning to you: Read something else!