Say what you like about Jeff Bezos and his insidious plan to take over the free market – the guy knows what I like. All I do is buy a few things (a week), and my home page zings with spot-on recommendations. As you might imagine, a lot of them have to do with classic crime fiction – and, in particular, Agatha Christie.
Of course, there are kinks in the system. The folks at Amazon should know by now that I own every Christie novel and should stop trying to sell me a paperback copy of The Murder on the Links (one of my least favorite titles). This issue, I feel, could be dealt with if they kept better track of my purchasing history. The other problem is where something is recommended to me because it seems to be just up my alley – except it turns out that it’s not so good – is more a matter of luck.
Take yesterday, for instance, when I dropped by the old website to purchase some lozenges (Amazon will offer flavors that nobody sells locally and it undercuts them in price; what’s a boy supposed to do?) when a book appeared on my home page: The Champion Deceiver: A Murderous Ode to Agatha Christie by Marc LaFountain. Looking for something new, I clicked on the blurb:
“A lost Agatha Christie manuscript for a murder mystery is discovered. An international contest is held to award it to the most-deserving Christie fan. The finalists journey to remote, beautiful Crale Island to finish the competition. Then, death leaps off the page and becomes all too real. Who among the group is The Champion Deceiver? A treat for all mystery lovers, enjoy this ode to the original Queen of Crime.”
The concept of a long-lost manuscript by one’s favorite author being unearthed probably strikes a chord in all of us. Remember the hoopla surrounding the publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, a purported “sequel” to To Kill a Mockingbird? So much excitement – and yet, as I read it, I felt a frisson of “be careful what you wish for.” And we’re not talking about Harper Lee here: we’re dealing with a guy who is self-publishing . . . who, by his Amazon photo, looks about half my age.
Who the heck is Marc LaFountain? Here’s what his bio on Amazon says:
Marc LaFountain lives in Jakarta, Indonesia, with his wife and their two crazy cats. He is a lifelong lover of murder mysteries in general and Agatha Christie novels in particular. The Champion Deceiver is his first work of fiction.
Funnily enough, the bio at the end of the book is the same – except that it says he lives in Morges, Switzerland. What’s going on, Marc? What web of deceit are you spinning here?!?
Despite the fact that the author appears to be on the run, I decided to take a chance on Mr. LaFountain. I could relate to much of his personal information: I, too, am “a lifelong lover of murder mysteries in general and Agatha Christie novels in particular.” I also live with “two crazy cats.” And frankly, I am chomping at the bit to accomplish what Mr. L. succeeded in doing: writing and publishing a mystery. Kudos to you there, sir!
The problem is that, once you succeed in your goal, you open yourself up to commentary and criticism. One can only imagine how hard Marc worked on this piece, and how much more challenging it was to do so while on the run from the a. Indonesian or b. Swiss authorities. Was he able to get appropriate wi-fi while hiding out in his a. kampung bamboo house or b. Alpine cabin? Did he understand the risk of completing a life goal, only to have some snarky blogger come along and toss his efforts to the winds?
Well, I’m not going to be that blogger: although I have some issues with The Champion Deceiver, I am appreciative of what has been accomplished here. Let’s look at the piece together and see what the author hath wrought.
First of all, this is, pure and simple, fan fiction rather than any sort of continuation or attempt to mimic Christie’s style. Oh sure, it’s a whodunnit, and it liberally borrows major tropes from Dame Agatha’s canon, but it’s set in the modern day and the general tone is more of a love letter to the Queen of Crime than an intricate mystery. LaFountain is treading dangerous ground here by setting up comparisons to Christie’s magnum opus, And Then There Were None, and frankly the piece works best when it deviates from that classic. The characters are not all murderers, for example: they are, if anything, a little too nice, and one of them is the spitting image in looks and spirit of a certain spinster sleuth. You can bet that will come in handy by the end.
The book both benefits and suffers from its length: it is a novella, a mere ninety-nine pages in length, which makes it a quick, easy read, but gives the whole affair a rushed feeling, particularly since it’s trying to hit the notes of its inspiration: get a disparate group to an island, strand them there, let the killings begin. What’s nice here is that LaFountain isn’t trying to best, or even equal, his idol. Where it suffers most for me is in the scant details that are parsed around this manuscript. I don’t want to play the “if I were writing this book” game, but how can one help it? I would have worked my ass off trying to approximate Christie’s style and deliver a good-sized taste of this manuscript. LaFountain scarcely bothers.
Still, the whole thing is a love letter to Christie that acknowledges her continued success in the publishing world and the excitement that would genuinely follow if a “new” manuscript were unearthed. The characters are an international assortment of Christie fans, each with his or her own reason for loving the author. LaFountain has given each one of them a name significant to the canon (I’ll say no more about that here), and while the characterizations are a little bland, the love they share for the author is believable.
I can’t say the same for the basic premise, which is more fantastic than one finds in a lot of GAD stories. I cannot believe that Harper Collins would create a contest to drum up publicity for the publication of the novel and then give ownership rights to a fan; they would be heating up the presses even as they negotiate for publishing rights. I don’t believe the island contest stunt would be needed to guarantee that this book would be an international best-seller, and I’m sure Christie’s great-grandson would have something to say about all this! I further can’t believe that anyone would allow themselves to get stranded on an island yet again with the most famous mystery on earth hanging over their heads as a warning!!
But hey! classic mysteries were built on crazier stuff, and one should be willing to go with the flow when one enters this world. However, it means I want a great deal of attention paid to the details. The contest goes like this: several rounds of questioning have gone out over the internet, resulting in six people being selected from around the world as Christie “super fans.” They are to meet on the island and engage in three rounds of trivia which will be filmed and ultimately televised. The winner will be the first in the world allowed to read Christie’s new book and then retain ownership of the manuscript. With stakes this high, one would expect a challenging final round for the top six; and yet, no effort has been made on the author’s part to create a truly challenging contest. The few questions that are shared with us are Basic Christie in the extreme: “What was the name of the riverboat in Death on the Nile?” “What was the name of Jane Marple’s nephew?” One can only imagine the questions that were asked to eliminate the chaff from thousands of applicants and bring us down to the smartest six.
The other issue is a matter of tone. Given the brevity here, it would behoove the author to plunge right in with the mystery. But things don’t really take a turn until well over the halfway mark. Up till then, we are in the company of a group of fairly pleasant people all agog – as we would be – over the presence of a heretofore unread Christie. At the end of Chapter Nine (of fourteen chapters) we are given a peek into the villain’s head:
“One person lay awake in bed for hours, thinking, analyzing, tense with anticipation. The plan was progressing perfectly. Yes, everything was on track. No one suspected the truth. Tomorrow would be quite a day.”
This is a nod to a nifty Christie trick, but it is neither accurate nor fair – and it comes too late in the game to provide much effect. We are hurried through a few more silly contest questions (“The central event of what Christie novel took place on Friday, October 29th at Little Paddocks, at 6:30pm?”) and some more death before everything is swiftly resolved.
If I have descended to snark, I don’t mean to. I want these kinds of efforts to succeed, and I want to encourage others who give it a try. LaFountain has set a huge task for himself in creating “a murderous ode” to the Queen of Crime. He has succeeded in writing and publishing a book. His love of Christie comes through in spades! His target audience is most likely readers who share that love – but this means our standards are high. The playful aspects of this novella are charming; the mystery itself more labored. It raises huge questions for devoted fans and wannabe writers like myself: how exactly do we get this done? And how do we do it well?